Cape Town - There are more similarities than some may realise between Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith.
For reasons I will elaborate on, it makes me just a little apprehensive.
Undisputed icons of post-democracy cricket in South Africa, their international careers overlapped for the vast majority of their tenures at the highest level (in the former’s case, ongoing) as they were Proteas team-mates for well over nine years.
Both have captained the national side - albeit considerably more fleetingly, by own choice, as far as Amla was concerned - and been genuinely kingpin batsmen at both Test and one-day international level.
Between them, they have contributed a mountainous volume of runs for the Proteas; their statistics in the premier, five-day format of the game are especially close.
Smith amassed 9 265 Test runs from 117 matches at an average of 48.25 and strike rate of 59; Amla’s figures, on the eve of his gratifying 100th appearance at the Wanderers against Sri Lanka from Thursday, stood at 7 665 at 49.45 and strike rate 50.
Both men have been renowned also for particularly marathon vigils - Amla is the lone triple-centurion and highest individual single-innings scorer for South Africa, courtesy of his withering 311 not out against England at The Oval in 2012, whilst Smith lies third on the basis of his famous 275 as a 22-year-old, callow skipper at Edgbaston in 2003.
They also boast respective further, suitably buxom double centuries to earn a further spot each amidst the top 10 of heftiest knocks by South Africans in Tests, just another reason why their presence on the premier tiers of this country’s annals is assured.
As far as the 50-overs international environment is concerned, Smith has played considerably more ODIs (197) to Amla (140, and counting) although the latter’s numbers are a fair bit better: 6 519 runs at 51.33 as opposed to “Biff’s” 6 989 at 37.98.
However you may choose to measure the two men up statistically - there has traditionally been much mutual affection and respect between the pair - they share an obvious hallmark of being incredibly well travelled on the fatiguing world circuit.
Been there, done that. Seen it all.
And it is on that very score that the occasion of Amla’s “ton-up” Test this weekend in caps terms makes this writer feel as much nervous - hopefully misguidedly so - as fulsomely chuffed for the affable legend of batsmanship.
It is almost impossible not to contemplate the possibility that the bearded, fabulously wristy right-hander’s once presumably instinctive passion, appetite and zest for the game is just beginning to wane due to sheer weight of cricket at various corners of the planet and the creeping repetitiveness of it all.
When Smith pulled the plug, it came reasonably suddenly, given that he was 33 at the time, which is usually still deemed short of the risk of being branded “past it” as a batsman.
He admitted during that difficult - for team and captain - series-surrendering third Test against Australia at Newlands in March 2014 that thoughts of retirement were serving as an increasingly damaging personal distraction.
It was something probably reflected in Smith’s returns at the crease; when he was dismissed for the final time in the arena for three by Mitchell Johnson, he had gone a very unusual nine Test knocks in a row without getting to even a half-century, and his average was noticeably, somehow almost unjustly slipping.
Amla is experiencing a lean phase of uncannily similar, and just as unfamiliar, proportions: 10 innings without a 50.
There have been few discernible features to his play at the crease, I think, to glaringly suggest yet that his powers are on the decline. Perhaps more educative is that on several recent occasions he has got out when pretty tidily set; a very opposite phenomenon used to occur more routinely, and brutally.
Are Amla’s current problems, just possibly, more hunger-related than they are technical or age-relevant, then?
I don’t believe we should dismiss that argument, and if this fine, proud player has any inkling of his own that it may be the case, then he may decide - though perish the thought - to take a dignified ride into a cricketing sunset sooner than we may think.
After all, Amla is 33, exactly the same age Smith chose to call it quits, and also has the mounting cares and demands of a young family to contemplate; just how enthusiastically does he board long-haul aircraft for lengthy tours or tournaments these days?
For more than just reasons of enduring, unashamed admiration, I am firmly not at this point among the knee-jerk lobby who believe that the sands of time have run out for Amla, simply on the basis that he has suddenly stopped bashing out centuries for fun.
Mother Cricket can be cruel at times; fresh generosity may well be just around the corner.
He is still a very senior, highly valuable figure whose very, aura-laden presence in the Proteas’ dressing room must have a powerfully constructive and calming effect on younger customers around him.
I should point out that there is no concrete evidence at hand to suggest the end is particularly close for Hashim Mahomed Amla; besides, we’ve had shockwaves enough from the SA camp in recent times.
But my advice on this auspicious occasion in the Bullring would pretty earnestly be this: make a special effort to enjoy him while you still can.
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