South Africa face India without their three batting stalwarts for the first time
- The Proteas will take on India in the three-Test series starting on December 26 without Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers or Faf du Plessis for the first time
Among the many inescapable realities confronting South African cricket right now, the most cricketing one will be resurfacing in a week in Johannesburg. They may put up a brave face but the Proteas are bound to feel the absence of Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis at home for the first time since 2013. This isn’t merely about runs at home or abroad, or about the Tests they have salvaged or won. It’s really more about the sense of a safety they have exuded, which in turn also helped create a sub-culture of a team within a team—one that helped South Africa stay unbeaten 17 out of the 24 times they have played together at home, beating New Zealand, Pakistan, India (twice) and Australia before de Villiers retired from Tests in 2018.
That reality check ran its course earlier this year, when du Plessis stopped playing Tests to focus on white-ball cricket (he didn’t get to play after that), leaving Dean Elgar as captain of the team. Elgar was a natural choice given that he was the most experienced batter in the team at the time. His job is to galvanise the side with Temba Bavuma—one of the wisest heads in the business right now—Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada and Aiden Markram as his lieutenants. But captaincy of South Africa is one of the trickiest jobs in the world right now. De Kock couldn’t cope with it after an exacting tour of Pakistan. With Elgar, now against India, captaincy is poised to become a double-edged sword—deciding tactics while ensuring the runs keep flowing from his bat.
It isn’t easy. Even when he was in touch, du Plessis was often playing catch-up with the bat as captain. His home average of 43 doesn’t really invoke the image of greatness. Amla was better at 46. De Villiers? Just over 47. But South Africa were rarely a one-man show when they played together. One fails, another steps up, that’s how they have operated. Go back to Cape Town, 2018. India were off to a dream start to the tour after Bhuvneshwar Kumar reduced South Africa to 12/3. Over the next two hours, de Villiers and du Plessis pulverised India’s bowling to raise 114 runs in just 28 overs. Next Test at Centurion, Amla (82) and du Plessis (63) took turns at hauling South Africa from 85 to 246 in the first innings before de Villiers (80) and du Plessis (48) again came together in the second innings. India lost the series there.
There is even a quirky statistic. Whenever de Villiers, Amla and du Plessis played together at home, de Villiers’s average shot up to 61.68. The 3-1 home series win against Australia in 2018 (right after India) amplifies that best, where across four Tests de Villiers aggregated 427 while Amla and du Plessis together scored 371. There were also series where the opposite happened. Even away from home. Du Plessis’s jaw-dropping numbers in Australia—an average of 83.16 in five Tests, with two hundreds in Adelaide, the only ones he has scored away—is a case in point. England too have been kind to Amla (avg 60.33) and de Villiers (54.5).
How about the subcontinent? No points for guessing. Amla or de Villiers, South Africa almost always had someone carrying them. If subcontinent batters were doomed by their impatience outside the off-stump away from home, Asia too meant embarrassing dismissals and lean averages for tourists. But Amla was so unlike any South African batter before him that Asian teams were often forced to attack the other end more. Amla flourished best in India, where he averaged 62.73. It was home away from home for de Villiers too. In a country where he enjoyed demigod status after playing 11 years for Royal Challengers Bangalore also stands a unique feat of batting—stonewalling India for 297 balls at Delhi in 2015, scoring only 43. Amla faced 244 balls for 25, du Plessis 97 balls for 10. It eventually went down as a 337-run defeat, but cricket had rarely witnessed such concerted resilience in the fourth innings.
It is this unique sum of strengths that made Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis pivotal to South Africa’s fortunes and stability. Familiar with each other’s approaches and responsibilities, they knew how to carve out runs against every opposition, almost every innings. All three were there in the last home series against India, doing their thing. It’s a new South Africa now though, out to seek that familiar comfort all over again.