Hashim Amla retired this week.
He was quiet, and devout, and unassuming, and could bat for days, and do it with an air of serene and calm. So he was of course a favorite of mine. I remember his triple century at the Oval a few years back. That is probably my favorite Amla memory. It was during the holy month of Ramadan so the rumor was that he fasted throughout his innings. I am not sure if I entirely believe that or not. I am sure he had water and vitamins and maybe a banana. But it adds to his legend: that he could bat for days and still sacrifice for his religion. God, then cricket.
Making his Test debut in 2004, and his ODI debut a few years later, puts him firmly in my list of cricketers that I came of age with as a cricket fan. And this week he became the latest to retire, alongside his South African teammate, Dale Steyn. There are so few left now, that I cannot help but feel a little wistful for the Pontings, the Cooks, the Dravids, the Amlas. All those giants of the game, all gone. And that’s just the tip of the retirement iceberg. Gayle will go soon. As will Jimmy Anderson maybe. And MS Dhoni is on his way out. Sure, cricket is filled with young, exciting crickets — some of whom actually play red ball cricket and play it well — Shimron Hetmyer springs to mind, so does Babar Azam — but it won’t be the same.
At the 2007 World Cup, the England ODI squad featured the likes of Michael Vaughn, Paul Collingwood, Andrew Flintoff, Kevien Pietersen, and Monty Panesar. India featured Dravid, and Tendulkar, and Sehwag, and Kumble. The players aren’t just unrecognizable these days, the game itself is, as the old guard moves on, and the T20 generation takes charge. That’s not to say that the change is a negative one, just that it is a change. And the fear here is that players like Amla, like Dravid, will never come back, as there just isn’t a place for that style in cricket any longer. Cricket awards not just the big bash, but the flamboyant, the loud, the angry, the emotive. Amla would simply walk onto the pitch, pray, and bat for days. I am going to miss him.
And I miss all the players from the generation previous. The last generation to cut their teeth before the T20 existed. Who only knew first class cricket and one day cricket. Who learned to bat and bowl with the Test being the pinnacle of the game. When the County Championship was no longer an after thought. When domestic competitions looked like Australia’s Shield and India’s Ranji Trophy bred Test cricketers not T20 specialists. When Tests still sold out stadiums. Those days are gone. For better or for worse, they are gone.
I get that I sound like an old man screaming into the void about the good old days. And to some extent I agree that I am. But I also think we are in a bit of a cricketing golden age. Sure, there are problems, but the Test still exists and in some cases is even thriving. We had a great World Cup. The US cricket team has ODI status. The women’s game isn’t just thriving but transcending. As is the youth game in the US. The T20 is keeping counties and clubs in the black. The players are well cared for with concussion protocols and the like. And the cricket is still exciting, and entertaining, and the battles on the field are well fought and as mentioned there is a whole host of young cricketers who seem to genuinely love the game. And in England a whole generation of young people watched Ben Stokes bat in the World Cup final and went out into their gardens to emulate their hero.
So instead of railing against the inevitable passage of time and the change that comes with it, I am more mourning the simple passage of time, of the mean fact that we all age, and our heroes age faster, somehow, disappear, fade away. And when are heroes are gone, what is left? When I first started following cricket, the best player in the world was probably Jacque Kallis. He is my age. All the aging cricketers are around my age. And so watching them retire and fall away is another reminder of my own mortality, my own desperate stumble away from relevancy in a world that moves so fast. All the players now are young with light still in their eyes. Hetmyer is 22. Azam, 24. Babies. And they can’t be my heroes because of that. I can respect them, and admire their talent, but once you reach 40, the age of the hero has passed you by.
Hero is defined as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” And so while it seems silly to call cricketers my heroes, it fits. In July of 2012, when Hashim Amla walked out into the Oval and batted all day and then some — all while fasting — he was my hero. And now he is gone,. Along with all the rest, never to return.
I have heroes outside of cricket, of course. Politicians, authors, directors, leaders — sometimes the occasional musician like, I don’t know, Jeff Tweedy or Thom Yorke or Beyonce — people who have transcended their genre. Geniuses. And also people I know in my day to day life, people with qualities that I wish to emulate, to see in myself. My mother and her selflessness, for instance, or my sister and her courage, or my boss who not just a spirited and challenging leader, but she is also one of the smartest people I know. And my heroes are the people that no matter how dark the world is, can see joy in everything, and everyone, despite political party, or any other doctrine.
But sports heroes are different, just like sports are different, are not real life. In sports our heroes are sometimes more fictional than characters in novels. And so, in that sense, more heroic. They seem, in their moment, in their prime, ageless, like they could bat forever. But then they age, and they break down, and they leave, and you are left with memories and the dust of those memories, and with the insistent albeit tender reminder that time is passing, and there’s nothing we can do to slow it down.
Amla was a joy. And now he is gone. And with him so much that once was, in cricket and everywhere else. The world has moved on, and there is no going back.
God speed, you glorious batsman, you hero. They broke the mould, though I desperately wish they hadn’t.