South Africa made light work of Afghanistan on Saturday to get their first victory of the World Cup. In a must-win game to keep their semi-final hopes alive, the Proteas sauntered to a nine-wicket triumph at the Sophia Gardens in Cardiff.

As comfortable as their outing was, it also threw up a big worry. So much so that skipper Faf du Plessis was asked about it in both the post-match presentation ceremony and the press conference after it. That worry is, of course, the laboured knock by Hashim Amla.

Saturday’s encounter at the Sophia Gardens in Cardiff was between teams that were occupying the last two positions on the points table. For all their difficulties in the recent past, though, South Africa were the firm favourites. They’d lost to England, Bangladesh and India earlier in the tournament but there was still no doubt that they had enough firepower to humble Afghanistan. And they did just that.

Imran Tahir did the star turn with the ball by picking a fifth four-wicket haul in World Cup cricket, the most by any player. The leg-spinner was ably supported by Andile Phehlukwayo and Chris Morris, who took five wickets between them to bowl out Afghanistan for 125 in a rain-affected first innings.

Amla’s troubles

The stage was set for South Africa to finish the game early and give a boost to their net run-rate. In a tournament with a format, where ten teams are fighting for four positions, one would imagine the importance of net run-rate being considerably high for everyone involved. South Africa’s performance with the bat, however, gave no such indication. And the sole reason for that was Amla’s innings.

The 36-year-old, who pipped the highly-rated Reeza Hendricks to the squad because of the wealth of experience he possesses, got off to a horror start in the tournament after being struck on the helmet by a Jofra Archer bouncer. He was forced to miss the next game against Bangladesh because of a concussion. In the three innings before Saturday’s match, he had managed just 25 runs.

A target of just 126 in good batting conditions, against one of the weaker bowling attacks in the tournament, seemed like the perfect platform for Amla to get back some confidence. But it’s hard to imagine him having gotten any, despite being not-out at the end.

Amla simply couldn’t find any rhythm in his knock of 41 runs from 83 balls. Against the likes of Aftab Alam, Hamid Hassan and Gulbadin Naib, who, with all due respect, are no Jeff Thomsons, the right-handed batsman was beaten for pace right through his stay at the crease.

The brilliant hand-eye coordination that helped Amla dominate world cricket for so many years was nowhere to be seen. It seemed like his bat was coming down a fraction of a second late each time. What was most worrying was the fact that he didn’t once try to break the shackles. He’d simply attempt a shot, fail to find the middle of the bat, do shadow practice, and then repeat the same thing over and over again.

“Obviously in a perfect world, yes, you would want Hash to get 40 balls, 40 or 50 balls,” Du Plessis said after the match. “But I think specifically with him it’s a bigger picture. It’s about getting runs, finishing a game off, getting confidence for himself. He’s a big player for us and we need him for the next four games. So ideally you wanted to score a little bit quicker there towards the end, but I see it more as a big picture thing with him specifically.”

Amla's innings progression against Afghanistan

Runs Scored Balls Faced
5 10
9 20
14 30
18 40
25 50
32 60
36 70
39 80

Amla, one of the best One-Day International batsmen of this generating, has been a declining force for a while now. With AB de Villiers having retired last year, it seems South Africa are desperate for one of their all-time greats to come good one last time in this World Cup.

“He’s an important player for us. I think time in the middle is gold for anybody,” Du Plessis added. “Guys like Quinton [de Kock], they’re on a different level when it comes to attacking and being free all the time. But not all players are like him.

“Some players really just need time in the middle and runs behind their name or their back, which really gives them confidence. And that’s why I say, in a perfect world, yes, we could have pushed a little harder at the end. But for me, sitting on the side, I was okay with him because I see the value in it in the games that’s coming up next.

“It was important for him to get among the runs, he will be important for us in the upcoming games. In the next four games, net run-rate is not going to play a massive role if you win those games. So we need Hashim to score runs for us, hence he needed a not-out innings today.”