“AMLA just doesn’t ever seem to deliver in the big games for South Africa.”
These were the comments that reverberated through the Eden Park Media Centre after Hashim Amla’s dismissal in the 2015 World Cup semi-final.
At first glance it seemed a damning statement, considering Amla has nearly always been at the top of the ICC ODI batting rankings. He’s also been the fastest to 2 000, 3 000, 4 000, 5 000, 6 000 and now 7 000 ODI runs, and averages 50.6 across 154 ODIs.
However, the emphasis was on “big” with particular reference to ICC global tournaments, including the moment when Trent Boult’s full in-swinging delivery took Amla’s inside edge before crashing into the middle stump.
Amla’s average nosedives to 38.38 in four ICC ODI tournaments (two Champions Trophies and two World Cups) prior to this latest ICC Champions Trophy adventure.
There have been fleeting memorable moments along the way. The 113 struck in the epic chase against eventual-champions India in Nagpur at the 2011 World Cup being the highlight on a reel that also includes a 159 against Ireland at the 2015 World Cup in Canberra.
But the consistency and “sense of occasion” has been lacking though. That moment the greats of the game seize to leave their indelible mark.
It is arguably why regardless of Amla’s incredible statistics, many don’t automatically reserve South Africa's former Test captain an automatic place at the exclusive dining table alongside ODI legends.
Such worldly matters hardly raise an eyebrow with Amla, but even he admitted in a recent interview that “I probably haven’t scored as much runs as I would have liked at big tournaments".
The realisation that opportunities to leave a legacy are diminishing rapidly as time moves on, Amla set off to the IPL to ease the pressures of an indifferent Test season. Two barnstorming centuries later and the shackles were completely off.
With confidence restored, the signs were evident in the England series prior to the start of this Champions Trophy that all the mechanics were being put in place.
And on Saturday, on a stage such as grand as The Oval on a glorious sunlit day in the Proteas' Champions Trophy opener, it all came to fruition with Amla's splendid 103.
Amla’s powers lay not in those silky wrists that allow him to weave the willow like a magic wand. Neither is it the ability to hit the ball on the top of its bounce like only the chosen few can.
Instead it is his astute judgment of conditions that sets Amla apart from the rest.
The pitch on Saturday was not the M1 that was served up for England’s triumph over Bangladesh last Thursday, when 613 runs were scored in total for the loss of only eight wickets.
This strip and a disciplined Sri Lankan attack required the intelligence to know that a flashing blade would lead to an early demise. A past master at exploiting the fielding restrictions in the first 10 powerplay overs and the delightful ability to pierce the inner ring almost at will, Amla realised that caution rather than haste would set the platform for greater bounties to be harvested later on.
And so it proved. Having required 33 balls to get to 18, the tempo was lifted mid-innings with a delicate open-faced cut short that raced down to the boundary before slapping a six over mid-off that hurried Amla to 50 off just 56 deliveries. The record-breaking 25th ODI century ultimately came at an equally decent tick of only 109 balls.
Amla, and South Africa for that matter, still have a long road to travel to ultimate glory in the UK, but like the 34-year-old also said prior to the start: “It would be nice to build up some momentum at the Champions Trophy. It’s a short, sharp tournament and if anyone gets on a bit of run anything is possible.”
With Amla’s London bus on the move, anything is indeed possible