DUBAI // A South African official described the impact of Hashim Amla’s return to the top of the team’s order in one word: “Massive.”
Even in times of batting bounty, that would be an understandable reaction to the a player who, until this week, was the world’s top-ranked ODI batsman.
But in times of strife, as South Africa now find themselves, it is beyond massive. Amla left the side after the first Test to be with his wife for the expected birth of their second child, but he returned to the UAE on Sunday morning with the delivery yet to happen. He will assume his place at the top of the order on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi for the third ODI against Pakistan, and how badly South Africa need him.
For all of South Africa’s problems with spin, their problems up top have been equally acute. Arguably it is that which has led to more pressure further down. In their last seven ODIs (two here and five in Sri Lanka in July), their opening stands read: 0, 7, 14, 17, 35, 0, 7.
In that spell, they have used five opening combinations, though the injury absences of Graeme Smith and Amla have compelled the experimentation. Amla has featured in two of those seven games – making 77 and 18 – but with his return, the sixth different opening pair will be their most preferred.
“Hashim’s return is a bonus, but there’s no guarantee he will score runs,” JP Duminy said. “He’s probably given us the best starts in the ODI format – he’s the best in the world – so it’s great to have him back. There’s no pressure on him, as he brings a lot of experience to the team and it’s great to have him. Hopefully, he can contribute to our batting performance.”
Duminy has been at the centre of a middle order struggling against spin in ODIs, a strange affliction given that they play spin in Tests so well and that up to five of the top seven are usually the same across formats. Many have made starts, but few have gone on, as only four fifties from specialist batsmen in those seven games attests.
“When you’re losing wickets early up front, you’re always catching up with the game from a batting perspective,” he said. “A lot of us, including myself, have got into 20s and 30s and got out. When teams are doing well from a batting perspective, it’s those guys that are in taking responsibility to push on and gets 80s and 100s.”
Pakistan’s batting, though it suffers from a deeper, more chronic ailment than South Africa’s, is coping with the same questions. Batsmen are starting, but not finishing, as evident in two successive scores of 58 for opener Ahmed Shehzad. That tally has made it four fifties in his last six ODIs, but no tons.
“Of course it is a little frustrating [to not go on],” he said. “You always want to go big and go long, towards a hundred, especially because as an opener, you have the best chance to do it. I could’ve done it in both games, but having seniors in the dressing room is a great advantage because you can learn things from them about building an innings better.”
Both sides should be able to score better in the two ODIs at Zayed Cricket Stadium. The surfaces in Sharjah and Dubai were both sluggish and double-paced, but traditionally, Abu Dhabi’s pitch has been better-suited to run-making.