Cape Town – Out for 11, and you could almost hear knees jerk even as the new captain headed a little disconsolately for the pavilion in Galle on Wednesday ... why had Hashim Amla decided to change to No 4 in the order?
As it happened: SL v SA - Day 1
After all, the bearded accumulator has been a fabulous Test No 3 for South Africa for around eight years, averaging 50-plus, so why mess with something that ain’t broke, as they say?
There is certainly a powerful case for saying the Amla status quo deserved being maintained for this first of two tricky Tests against Sri Lanka in their own habitat.
But it would also be pathetically premature to brand the switch a flop, simply because on day one of the series he uncharacteristically holed out with a lofted drive to widish mid-off after a 36-ball vigil.
Horror of horrors, he might even have done that from the No 3 berth.
Personally, I still suspect the not insignificant move may come to be proved a good idea if given a suitable opportunity to take root: and if it doesn’t, then the new five-day captain can seamlessly switch back to his old slot, can’t he?
I can confirm that it was Amla’s idea to put an enterprising toe in the No 4 water: he told Sport24 as much in a previously-published exclusive interview, very shortly after his confirmation as long-serving Graeme Smith’s captaincy successor a few weeks ago.
Saddled now with the formidable burden of leadership, and not getting any younger as he negotiates his 32nd year (he turned 31 in late March), Amla admitted that dropping a rung on the ladder might just be a wise idea in this later phase of his career, potentially to the benefit of both the batsman and the cause he represents.
It would just give him that little, but perhaps vital additional time to get his personal thoughts together on a wicker chair for an innings after, say, a marathon stint directing traffic and tactics in the field.
Batting at No 3, nobody needs reminding that you may be in before you know it ... perhaps as early as the first over if an opener has nicked off or played on to the new nut, and that effectively exposes you to the perils of the first-wicket chore as well.
It is difficult to imagine someone as rational and focussed as Amla too swiftly abandoning the experiment, either, if he thinks there may be merit in it.
Besides, on Wednesday what we did witness was the designated new “first drop” man, Faf du Plessis, producing a suitably obdurate and disciplined innings of 80 at a sedate strike rate of around half his runs: in short, a No 3-type innings from the very man now in that role.
So in that respect, the novel dispensation can be said to have shown some immediate promise.
Never forget that Amla is a driven fellow who has proved people wrong before: a fair number of critics, watching him pottering around uncomfortably in his earliest Test matches from 2004 between positions five and seven, felt he wouldn’t cut it in any slot at the highest level – something that would later be exposed as a misjudgement of the most dizzying kind.
There is also a certain, comforting synergy in Amla easing into the No 4 berth of a particularly distinguished predecessor, Jacques Kallis.
The last-named batsman also got nailed down as the No 3 in the early phase of his Test career, and scored nine centuries from there in six relatively youthful years for him in the arena.
Kallis then, just as Amla is doing now, opted to drop a notch in the summer of 2001/02 -- and the lion’s share of his stellar 13 289 career runs came at No 4, where he was less vulnerable to the relative lottery that is the new ball as his legs and eyes gradually sacrificed the special reliability and vitality of youth.
Oh yes ... South Africa, on a first day in Galle marked by Dean Elgar’s accomplished first century in just his second Test match as a designated opener, ended it on 268 for five, rather subsiding in the afternoon shadows after a sparkling morning.
That’s not a wonderful score at a legendarily spin-friendly venue where the average first knock is 376, suggesting a fair bit of graft still lies ahead from the lower order just to beat “par”.
But it wasn’t because Hashim Amla tried something different in terms of his own stationing, and it’s not yet been shown up by the ‘Lankans as woeful, either ...
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