Hashim Amla is good at cricket. You’ll have picked up on this. He has a highest Test score of 311, and an average of 52. In 15 Tests since the start of 2012 he has 1,526 runs at 72. He’s decent in one-dayers too, averaging 56 with a strike rate above 91.
He does all of this while looking wonderful, too, with an on-drive that could launch a thousand ships and a range of shots to send fellow players insane with jealousy. He also has the confidence of a man unconcerned about getting out, because he knows he probably won’t do so that quickly. It’s not arrogance, but rather knowledge – an awareness of the facts at his disposal, rather than the proud self-belief that many of his less-talented contemporaries have.
And yet, my first thought about Amla is not one of the best players in the world today and potentially one of the finest South Africa have ever produced, but rather that of an uncoordinated mess, a Bambi-esque walking wicket who provides absolutely no threat to anyone and has no place at this most hallowed level of sport.
This is because that’s exactly what he was when he first got into the Test side. Against England in 2004/5, Amla was unfinished, a cricketer still with the scaffold around him with huge holes in his game and a front pad so big it seemed as if it was from a cartoon about inept cricketers. In his first six innings he scored 24, 2, 1, 0, 25 (from 75 balls) and 10, and his nascent Test career was temporarily put out of its misery halfway through that England series.
It’s not just Amla, either. Jimmy Anderson is still a talented but too-often innocuous young colt who’ll never quite make the most of his talent. Dale Steyn still the raw tearaway who’s just as likely to send the wicketkeeper flying as the stumps. Shane Watson is still the answer to Australia’s all-rounder problem.
This is all because of snap judgements, of first impressions. First impressions are a powerful thing in cricket, perhaps above that of most other team sports. I know that all of the above statements are now untrue, and the subsequent performance of those players is true reflection of their ability rather than the picture in my mind, but these remain my initial reaction when seeing them walk out to bat or mark out their run-ups.
It’s not the case in football. When Thierry Henry came to England he was almost comically bad, his pace only serving to exacerbate his other flaws, because it would get him into more positions where he could mess up. But when I see him I think of perhaps the most thrilling footballer I’ve ever seen in the flesh, not the man described as the French Perry Groves back in 1999.
So why is it different in cricket? It’s perfectly possible that it’s just something not quite right in my brain, but there must be logical explanations. One could be that, although cricket is a team sport, it relies so much on individual performance that we concentrate on single players very intently. For each ball it is, for a moment, only about two players, and our attention is so firmly on those players that they have time to make an impression, to form a picture that is therefore difficult to shake.
Confirmation bias also plays a part – if you’ve decided that someone is an lbw candidate, then in an over in which they clip five boundaries off their pads but get caught in front on the sixth, the chances are you’re likely to latch onto the final ball rather than the preceding ones. ‘Told you so, he plays all around that front pad,’ you might say. It’s also possible that in this age when everyone must Have An Opinion on something, you want to stick to that opinion, lest you look like an indecisive buffoon who knows nothing.
It’s similar when you’re introduced to a new person, and decide instantly that person is a cock, quite often irrationally. It then takes quite a lot of non-cock behaviour to convince you that said person is not in fact a cock, whereas something as minor as failing to adequately cover their mouth when yawning only serves to prove your initial cock diagnosis. ‘Look at that cock with his big yawning mouth, the cock.’
This might be bullshit. I might be the only one. You lot might be perfectly able to consider the altogether more relevant evidence of today than an impression hastily formed some eight years ago, and if so well done. I know Hashim Amla is good at cricket, it’s just for a second I don’t think he is.