Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn represented the best of South Africa on the cricket field. One, a batsman of sheer class and the other a bowler, who created a reputation of terrorising batsmen on the pitch. It was to South Africa’s benefit that these stalwarts began their career in the same season and it is a matter of concern now for South Africa that both have decided to quit at the same time.
South Africa is undergoing a transition, struggling to fill the void created by the departure of quality players like Amla and Steyn now and AB de Villiers earlier. That South Africa had come to depend on them a lot was no secret. To get Amla and de Villiers early would bring cheer to the rival dressing room even though there was hardly any respite from the scorching pace of Steyn.
When Amla and Steyn were at their best, South Africa too was figuring among the top three of international cricket. It was a throwback to the times when South Africa, coming out of apartheid, was celebrating its return to the international fold with some sensational victories in Tests and ODIs. The presence of a calm Amla and a volatile Steyn triggered a wave of good performance in the South African ranks. It resulted in their fans enjoying the team’s domination and some victories underlined their significance firmly as the one against India in Nagpur in 2010. South Africa won that match by an innings and left India bruised and battered in four days of compelling cricket.
Amla’s knock of 253 not out, after coming to the crease in the fifth over, was a lesson in determined batsmanship. He had Kallis for company as the Indian attack, including Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan Singh, was negotiated admirably. When India batted, Steyn ran through the innings with the kind of pace not seen often on Indian soil.
Steyn’s spells of seven for 51 and three for 57 were acts of hostility. He rocked the Indians with pace and beat them into submission on a pitch where Amla scored a double century and two Indians — Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar — hit a century each. It was disappointing that Steyn did not win the Man of the Match honours but what mattered most was that he scythed through a formidable batting line-up with a stunning display of pace bowling.
Amla and Steyn were associated in many more victories which highlighted the excellent preparation programme in place in South Africa. The essence of selection was to promote the game and protect the interest of cricket in the domestic league. Players like Graeme Smith and Shaun Pollock had left a legacy for the likes of Amla and Steyn to emulate and they did not disappoint their followers.
South Africa prospered on the strength of Amla and Steyn, their consistency and prolific success in all conditions boosting the team’s reputation. Their dream of winning a World Cup, however, remained unfulfilled but Amla and Steyn left a stamp of authority on world cricket. Amla made three tours to England, hit two centuries, and dominated the Oval Test in 2012 with an unbeaten 311. His defence and backfoot play came in for high praise from those who value good technique. For Steyn, the 10-wicket haul in Melbourne in 2008 was equally memorable too as South Africa crushed Australia by nine wickets.
Co-incidentally, Amla and Steyn signed off their Test careers with a defeat against Sri Lanka in Port Elizabeth in February 2019. Amla’s 0 and 32 were as disappointing as Steyn’s toil, going wicketless from the 18 overs that he bowled. It was crisis time for South Africa, which lost the series to Sri Lanka, and also these gems as Amla and Steyn came to realise their time was up.
Their departure from the Test scene is bound to increase South Africa’s woes in the longest brand of cricket. The replacements are not going to fill their shoes in a hurry even though there are hopes from fast bowler Kagiso Rabada and opening batsman Aiden Markram, who belong to the old school of cricket where performance was the key to survival.
The pressure on South Africa is going to be high during the coming season, especially in India where the team will be tested in winter. For the South African bowlers it is going to be a challenge to stand up to run machines like Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara and the task would be equally hard when facing enigmatic bowlers like Kuldeep Yadav and the famed pace strength of Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
South African cricket, since the time it returned to the international fold, has been drawing on its raw force to retain its reputation. How far it can succeed this time will be revealed in the Test series against India.
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