If anyone needed proof that this was a week nobody will forget in South African cricket, the retirements of Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla within three days of each other is probably it.
From a new Proteas coaching structure, which – depending on who you speak to – is either revolutionary or reinvents the wheel, to an interim national team coach who was a rookie franchise coach just last season, Cricket SA made seismic changes this week.
Steyn and Amla withdrawing a combined 442 caps – or 439 test wickets, five 10-fors and 26 five-fors; and 55 centuries and South Africa’s only triple hundred, respectively – from the Proteas’ front line served to emphatically underline just how unrecognisable the country’s new cricketing landscape will be.
Steyn, a fast bowler’s fast bowler in actions and in words, retired from test cricket on Monday to prolong whatever is left of his career at 35, while Amla – whose twirled backlift was living proof that there are many ways to skin a bowling attack – gave up the ghost in all international formats on Thursday at a year older than his comrade in arms.
And, in so doing, the two, who, for the best part of the past decade, were the spirit animals of the Proteas’ bowling attack and batting line-up, rode off into the cricketing sunset with the national team’s heart (Steyn, of course) and soul (few appearances define soul like the bearded Amla’s general demeanour).
As already highlighted throughout the week, Steyn is South Africa’s highest wicket-taker and the eighth-highest in test history.
Amla, the scorer of that unbeaten 311 against England, is the country’s second-highest run-scorer and one of only five batsmen in the game to have scored 25 or more centuries in both tests and one-day internationals (the others are Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Kumar Sangakkara and Virat Kohli).
We could get bogged down in the significance of the numbers – cricket’s main currency – but the real point here is that these are two careers that probably should not have continued for so long: Amla’s for a technique international purists tried to return to sender and Steyn’s for a frame so negligible in its wiriness he should never have bowled at 140km/h, let alone repeatedly for 15 years.
Long story short, their success was achieved very much on their own terms.
Looking back at their 15 years or so of service, the temptation is to pick a magical bowling spell by Steyn or a typically heroic innings while fasting by Amla as the moments that underpin their stellar careers.
Personally, I always knew I was in for a bit of entertainment – and the bowling attack a long day – when Amla’s back-foot punch was dialled in, or when a desperate captain threw the ball at Steyn in prayer for a wicket or five after tea.
The two are the last of the Proteas colossuses who strode the planet from 2008 – turning up at some unsuspecting cricket superpower’s back yard and pounding them into submission – to depart the international scene.
But of that lot, they are the most relatable: Graeme Smith seemed too cold-eyed with ambition; Mark Boucher too grumpy; the metronomic Jacques Kallis too robotic; AB de Villiers too freakishly talented; and Makhaya Ntini too indefatigable.
When the self-deprecating Amla (he once said his signature shot was the middled edge) shambled in to bat, you couldn’t help but wonder why the 12th man, in bringing in a fresh set of gloves, thought he had to carry out his duties in full batting regalia.
Besides looking nothing like Tarzan and bowling every bit like him, the fiery-eyed Steyn was wonderfully normal and laid-back off the field, whether he was playing in the streets with some Sri Lankan kids, or driving some random Cape Town teens to their matric dance.
Steyn and Amla’s departure has helped crystallise the fact that the Proteas, and South African cricket, have officially embarked on a new era. The clues to replacing them and their impact lie in how they were true to themselves until time itself called time.
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