December 15, 2013

Cricket's finest bloke?

Quiet, unassuming, polite and humble, Hashim Amla remains a terrific role model

Is Amla the most respected cricketer on the world circuit? © AFP

In between all the bad-tempered shenanigans in the Ashes, the humblest and most self-effacing cricketer on Planet Earth crept up on one of the gods of cricket and broke his record, almost apologetically, as if he had no right to be in heaven.

I refer to Hashim Amla becoming the fastest player to reach 4000 ODI runs, eclipsing the mighty Viv Richards. In so many different senses, you couldn't get players who were any more different in style and power. Amla has none of the swagger and brutality that Viv displayed in his pomp, and yet he is entitled to share in some of that reflected glory, much to the embarrassment of Amla himself.

To be fair to Sir Viv, if he had batted in these times, on flat tracks, facing bowlers who serve up a regular dose of full tosses and with only four men allowed out in the deep, to say nothing of the improved cricket bats, one shudders to think what carnage he may have caused. The general improvement in the standard of fielding might have been a limiting factor but Viv rarely got to plunder poor bowling attacks either. There were hardly any minnows around in his time.

But I digress; there is a danger that the real subject may slip under the radar, just the way Amla seems to prefer it. Quiet, unassuming, polite and humble, here is a man who perhaps owes his career to an even greater man, who has slipped away into the night - Nelson Mandela. I will declare my bias upfront. I am an Africa-phile, unashamedly obsessed with southern Africa in particular, and a huge admirer of the Mandela legacy. That admiration now stretches to an unabashed man crush on Amla.

He is one of the few in modern cricket that I truly admire as a person. My two young sons too have taken him to their hearts, partly because we love watching his wristy style but mainly because he just goes about his business without any rancour or malice. In a sport that has recently "undistinguished" itself by the crass and boorish behaviour of many of its luminaries, Amla is a fantastic role model.

He is living proof that you can score runs, and runs, and more runs without needing to resort to cheap excuses about needing to sledge or be sledged in order to fire up one's own competitive streak. I suspect Amla was the subject of some fierce sledging early in his career but the word on the street now is that most international opponents just leave him alone, perhaps out of respect and perhaps from the realisation that he is so secure in his own skin that he is immune to such immaturity.

Amla's serene demeanour may have come from his background, growing up in the Rainbow Nation post-apartheid. Perhaps as a child growing up in Durban, he may have experienced some of the teething problems that besieged South Africa when it emerged from its dark past in the early 1990s. I am fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in South Africa, and while I can appreciate that change of this magnitude comes slowly, I have only ever experienced a hospitality and warmth that defies all the stories I read as a child.

Amla is living proof that you can score runs, and runs, and more runs without needing to resort to cheap excuses about needing to sledge or be sledged

Admittedly I am not a native of this beautiful country and I haven't seen what lies beneath the surface, so it's hard to know if Amla has developed his serenity from learning to cope with being different. His popularity among his team-mates reflects what I've seen in modern South Africa - from the Afrikaners to the English to the Asian coloureds to various African tribes, all I've experienced is kindness and friendship, so much so that it was difficult to imagine, reading Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, what it must have been like to grow up and live in the apartheid years.

So here's my question: of all the current players, leaving aside patriotic bias, is Amla the most "respected" on the world circuit? Of course we'll never know what goes on in the dressing rooms but on the surface of it, is there an opponent who genuinely dislikes Amla (the man and not the cricketer)? Other contenders for me would include Sachin Tendulkar, Mike Hussey, Shiv Chanderpaul and Muttiah Muralitharan (putting aside the controversies relating to his bowling action).

I'm talking here about that genuine good-bloke status that Amla seems to enjoy, even when he is calmly slicing an attack apart (and therefore presumably liable to copping a bit of frustrated vitriol from the fielding team).

From a pure batting perspective, I reckon he's as good a player to watch as any. His stunning knock in Perth last year was something to behold, a surgical dismembering of an attack, without the slightest hint of aggro. Even his celebrations are muted and dignified, which resonates with me but may not be enough for the marketers of gloss and showbiz.

I was moved to write this piece after watching Mandela's funeral, because Amla, more than any other person I can think of, reflects the dignity of Madiba and owes his presence on the world stage to Mandela's long walk to freedom.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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