Hashim Amla pulls a shot in the second Test against England at Trent Bridge. Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters
NOTTINGHAM  When Hashim Amla pulled Mark Wood to the square leg boundary for four on the first morning of the second Test to become the fourth South African batsman to pass 8 000 runs, there might have been a wistful sigh from many Proteas fans.

The other three players to pass that mark are Jacques Kallis (13 206), Graeme Smith (9 253) and AB de Villiers (8 074). The last time South Africa toured England, all four of the ‘8000 club’ were in the starting line-up  those were the days.

Indeed, that quartet was instrumental in what is arguably the best period South African cricket has experienced in the Test format. Series wins in England and Australia in 2008 were followed by series wins in the same countries four years later.

Amla is all that remains of those glory years, and his captain in that period looks at him now feeling sorry that he has to carry such a massive burden in a team with an unsettled batting line-up. 

“I just think our batting unit (of 2008 and 2012) had six or seven quality players that could do it on a day. Now at the top of the order, for me, there’s just too much on Hash... he feels that he carries that responsibility,” said Graeme Smith, who is commentating for BBC Radio in this series.

Amla’s average across his last 13 Tests  including his first innings 78 here  is 33.90. He’s made just the one century in that time, and the authority with which he played when he was last year five years ago is missing.

Many who watched him score that superb 311 and then make 121 at Lord’s in the deciding match of the 2012 series have wondered what happened to the player who serenely and elegantly carved England to pieces. 

His newly acquired T20 status has been put forward as one reason. His technique, so tight and disciplined in 2012, is now loose, and he’s susceptible to error because he wants to attack more is a theory that is gaining popularity.

But Amla’s form is a symptom of a South African side that at Lord’s especially appeared to lack identity. 

And look, a significant part of that was Faf du Plessis’ absence, but there is also a sense that we’ve reached something of a turning point with this South African team.

Their results in the period in which Amla has been in a slump, have been good - wins in Australia and New Zealand and a clean sweep at home against Sri Lanka.

It now seems apparent, that as well South Africa played in Australia, there were too many weaknesses with Steve Smith’s team and South Africa did very well to exploit them.

This England side is a solid outfit, but not without flaws and of course in Joe Root it too is seeking a new identity. 

But England played with such energy and purpose at Lord’s against a lacklustre Proteas that it was right that so many commentators expressed concern about South Africa’s future as a competitive Test side.

Whatever the other faults in Graeme Pollock’s assessment last week of SA cricket, he was quite right in pointing out that the state of domestic cricket is poor and wasn’t good enough in preparing players for international level. 

A look at how the SA A side, which toured England recently, fared confirms that. Out of that SA A team the selectors have put their faith in Heino Kuhn and Aiden Markram, with the latter a long-term prospect to anchor the top-order.

There have been calls for Markram to be given his chance as a Test cricketer now, but England is a harsh environment for anyone to make their debut, even one with Markram’s talent and most importantly his composure.

The fact that Markram is even being considered as an option speaks to the lack of depth from which the SA selectors have to choose.

“We had been together a while,” Smith says of that 2012 team. 

“We built the squad up, had all the bases covered. The big decision on that tour was for De Villiers to keep, which enabled us to play an extra batter in JP. We had depth, Kallis and AB as the two all-rounders gave us a luxury player.”

Luxury is something Du Plessis’ team don’t have. They’ve been forced to drop Theunis de Bruyn, the seventh batsmen, because they’re concerned by the number of overs the fast bowlers have to deliver in Kagiso Rabada’s absence in this second Test.

“We also had a steeliness about us, we knew how to win, we were a toughened Test side, so when you come to places like England, you have to have the ability to handle pressure and exert it. These are long Test series, you’re under the cosh for a long time, and you need to have that ability,” said Smith.

That was an element missing from South Africa’s play at Lord’s, and it surprised so many watchers in this country and the England team too. 

Du Plessis was hoping he could quickly restore it to ensure this Test series didn’t get away from his team ahead of the third Test.

For Smith, the path ahead has to be simplified. A lack of experience in the starting line-up of the second Test  England have seven players with 30 or more Test caps to South Africa with five  means players have to just get on with the jobs they have to do.

“I know it’s Heino’s first series, but the senior guys will be saying to him, ‘Look, you’ve got to find something now. This is a big Test series, you’re picked to do a job and you’ve got to get that job done’. 

“That has to be the message to the players. ‘Don’t look at the man next to you, take ownership of your position and do your job’.”

It is the only way to take the burden off the only man still standing from the ‘8 000 club’.

Sunday Independent

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