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OPINION: My cricket heroes bowout of the game

OPNION – IN THE last week, two great South Africans have announced their retirement from the international stage. Insofar as one of advanced age can still have heroes, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn are mine. The greatest (with AB de Villiers) of a generation of South African cricketers were constrained to play in a team that – for reasons of both politics and money – would not be the best 11 South Africa could field. They eschewed the riches of “Kolpak”, the British immigration loophole that has, in just five years, led more than a Test team of internationals to forsake South Africa for county cricket. Instead they fought against the odds, true stars in a team that was often weighed down by journeymen. For elite sportsmen, both among the best of the best of all time, to selflessly do this year in year out requires a fidelity to the country and a strength of heart that is astounding to consider. Some cricketers play in an offhand fashion, some jittery, some swashbuckling. Steyn was pure intensity. From the moment he turned to start his run up he existed, and all who watched him existed, nowhere else but in the gap from wicket to wicket. And for those, like me, seated under the Oaks, all of our own and South Africa’s problems were shunted completely from our minds and hearts. After selection politics led to a substandard team being fielded for the World Cup semi-final in 2015, Steyn was fated to bowl the final over with New Zealand needing 12, and was hit out the park by Grant Elliott to shatter our dreams – and Steyn’s – once again. And yet he got back up, as he always did, with the tenacity that made him the 8th highest Test wicket taker of all time. The last few years, blighted by injuries, have seen him raging against the dying of the light, but rage he did, and his sporadic last appearances were as blistering and spirit-rousing as ever. The experience of Amla was different. It can best be characterised with his own signoff to his career, “love and peace”. Amla embodied all the better angels of modern South Africa, and in so much more than the identitarian sense of being the Proteas’ first non-white captain. Where Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, like Springboks, played the game in the tough, bullish fashion that was the trademark of Afrikaner-inflected sports, Amla was something new. There was a sensitivity as well as a grace, both in his wristy strokeplay and in his demeanour. Even when racist Australian batsman Dean Jones described him as a terrorist, he maintained his composure, somehow. Above all there was a patience and serenity. Nothing was frantic when he was at the crease, and anything, suddenly, was just about possible. The phenomenon of the South African batting collapse is one painfully familiar to anyone who watches the sport. In 2011, at Newlands, after South Africa were dismissed for 96 in their first innings, Amla got South Africa over the line with a century of total serenity. He performed the same miracle five years later, replying to a brutal 258 in 198 balls by Ben Stokes with a calm double hundred of his own to salvage a draw. These are moments a cricket fan, particularly with a South African’s share of heartbreaks, carries in one’s heart forever. Amla himself observes that cricket is “ephemeral by its nature”. Other great cricketers will rise and fill his and Steyn’s spots in the team – Kagiso Rabada, for one, already has – but any great player is, in the final reckoning, irreplaceable, even by someone of equivalent quality. The character of a team, and the meaning of a team to those who watch them, changes with those who take the field. That change is not necessarily for the worse or better, but it is palpable. Donen, SC, is an advocate at the Cape Bar and a listed counsel of the International Criminal Court. The Mercury

OPINION: My cricket heroes bowout of the game

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