Amla must rally troops

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The South Africa captain faced a harrowing time of it in India. His side lost their proud away record and he had a series to forget, averaging 16.85 with the bat in eight innings with a highest score of 43.

But don’t let Amla’s modest nature fool you. Sure, he’s no Graeme Smith, whose personality and stature dominated the team environment, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t tough or determined.

It’s the toughest period Amla has faced at international level since England’s tour here in 2004/05 when his technique was scrutinised and there was a feeling he struggled against the short ball.

In that series he was mercilessly picked apart by Steve Harmison, Simon Jones, Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff and it looked like a career at international level was beyond him. He played just two Tests before being dropped. South Africa lost that series. They can ill-afford to lose this one.

“To lose against England won’t be ideal. But let’s not be so gloomy before the series starts,” Amla said on the Proteas’ return from India.

“We’re all optimistic that the batters will get their confidence back and the bowlers will do their job and hopefully we play the Test cricket we have been playing over many years.”

The batsmen struggled on those turning Indian tracks and, while conditions at home will be more to their liking, England’s excellent seam bowling unit – led by James Anderson and Stuart Broad – won’t mind bowling here either.

South Africa look vulnerable, ironically like at no other stage since that 2004/05 series against Michael Vaughan’s side.

As is the case now, the side then was very much in transition, with Smith a relatively new captain. Amla, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn were the new faces then, just as Stiaan van Zyl, Temba Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada are now.

South Africa have gone back to a selection ploy that served them well when they took the No1 ranking from England in 2012. Then they used seven batsmen, plus Vernon Philander, to overwhelm Andrew Strauss’s England side.

Of course, they also had one Jacques Kallis, who provided a key option with the ball. That isn’t the case now, and even with JP Duminy, likely to bat at No7 in Durban and Cape Town, there is a lot of vulnerability about the batting order that Anderson and Co will be excited about exploiting.

A lot, then, comes down to the captain and the senior players, and Amla is hoping they can “rally around” and produce the necessary performances to enable them to win a series that stands out as vital for South African cricket.

The loss in India, where conditions in two of the four Tests were extreme, has left some deep psychological scars.

“It’s going to be important to get away from cricket completely,” Faf du Plessis said last week.

He had a horrible series in India, averaging 8.57, and was relegated from his spot at No3.

“It’s also important that we don’t take any mental scars into that series, which I don’t think will be the case. Each guy must find his own way of recharging because the England series is a massive one.”

The seven-batsmen policy is designed to ensure the tail isn’t as long, but it only works if those seven are scoring runs.

Van Zyl can put his continued selection down to what coach Russell Domingo described as a “mature and consistent” strategy. Certainly, the conditions Van Zyl will face won’t be anything like those he endured in India and in his case it is hoped that familiarity will breed success.

Then there’s Duminy, who is in another slump, as he was in 2009/10 when England were last here. His last Test century came against Sri Lanka in Galle last year and in 10 innings since then, his highest score has been 55 against Zimbabwe. For a player of his class and now experience – Duminy has played 32 Tests – it’s worrying to be averaging just 32.92.

Duminy will be responsible for marshalling the tail – an area highlighted as a weakness by Domingo – but right now his confidence and form are low.

This series could be a turning point in his career for if he doesn’t perform the selectors must look to give someone else a chance in the Test side.

From a bowling point of view, South Africa already know they will be without Philander for at least half of the series.

But there are sufficient seam bowling options. Dale Steyn should be fit for Kingsmead and Morné Morkel showed in India that he is hitting top form.

The decision between who of Rabada and Kyle Abbott plays in Durban will be intriguing. Both were outstanding in India, with Abbott perhaps more consistent.

Rabada is on a steep learning curve, but he is also showing he’s able to quickly implement the lessons he’s picked up.

It will be a close series – the match-ups between South Africa versus England, especially here, always tend to be.

England are not without their own concerns which coincidentally also lie with the batting. They are also searching for an opening partner for Cook, with Alex Hales set for a debut, while the No3 spot is also up for debate.

Nevertheless, as the home side and still the No1 team in the world, all eyes will be on Amla and the Proteas.

“There’s a lot of work to do in the Test side, a lot of spots that there have been questions about,” said Domingo.

“We’ve got to start afresh with a new group of players and create a new legacy. That will take time.”

Lose to England, however, and Domingo and Amla may not be given more time to be the overseers of that transition.

THE LINE-UP

South Africa

Dean Elgar, Stiaan van Zyl, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla (capt), AB de Villiers, Temba Bavuma, JP Duminy, Morné Morkel, Dale Steyn, Dane Piedt, Kyle Abbott, Kagiso Rabada, Rilee Rossouw

England

Alastair Cook (capt), Alex Hales, Nick Compton, Joe Root, James Taylor, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Mark Footitt, Chris Jordan, Samit Patel, Chris Woakes, Gary Ballance

– THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT

Mental scars from the torrid India tour are a concern as the Proteas prepare to face the England.

Original source: Amla must rally troops

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