England v South Africa, 4th npower Test, The Oval, 3rd day August 9, 2008

Amla seeks to dispel the doubts


Hashim Amla stalled England's push towards a consolation win © Getty Images
 
Of all the players to have contributed to South Africa's historic series win in England, Hashim Amla is the one man who will have caused the most surprise among his opponents, and delight among his peers. With his unmistakeable beard, and a manner that can come across as meek before you realise he's simply being polite, he has the look and feel of a soft touch - hardly the sort of character you want batting at the pivotal No. 3 position in such a high-profile tussle for supremacy.

But Amla has been eroding that perception all throughout this trip, and the quality of his final-day defiance at Lord's has given way to the majesty of his straight driving today. His unbeaten 71 from 86 balls was an innings of such quality and, above all, speed, that South Africa's hopes of registering their third consecutive victory of the series are beginning to break the surface of the puddles that were forming on the covers by the close of the third day's play.

"We'd be gutted to lose here, but we do have an opportunity to win," said South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur. "England looked vibrant, and I do think our guys weren't mentally in the same space as they were at the start of the series, and that's understandable, but it's even stevens now. With another one or two partnerships, we can get up to or over 200-220 and put a lot of pressure on the England top five. We feel we can defend that."

Amla is an unlikely ego-pricker, but on today's brief evidence, he is South Africa's best hope if they are to get close to a total from which they can win the match. It is not merely that he will have been the least affected by the celebrations that followed the Edgbaston triumph (as a devout Muslim, he opted out of the hedonism that gripped of some of his team-mates). Far more important is the fact that he still has one last point to prove to an England team that, even now, are probably not quite convinced that he is the real deal.

Amla's first appearance against England, at home in 2004-05, set the agenda for the barrage to which he has been subjected on this tour. After a debut against India at Kolkata in November 2004, he was selected for his home debut at Durban in place of the black wicketkeeper, Thami Tsolekile, and unwittingly underpinned the feeling that he did not deserve a place on merit when he was bombed out for 1 and 0 by Steve Harmison and Simon Jones.

Two more short-lived scores of 25 and 10 in the subsequent Test at Cape Town persuaded the selectors to shelve the experiment, and Mark Boucher - a frustrated onlooker for the early part of the series - was belatedly recalled for the fourth Test at Johannesburg and AB de Villiers was allowed to give up the gloves and get back to being a batsman. The fact that Amla had been chosen after a prolific season as the captain of the Dolphins in Natal was neither here nor there. The statistics of the series said he had not been worth his place, and that seemed to be the end of the argument.

England's thinktank remembered that fact all too clearly ahead of this series, and right from the start of the Lord's Test their approach to Amla has mirrored the bombardment of three years ago, with short balls in abundance. And yet, at the close of the third day, England's coach, Peter Moores, was forced to admit that the player they've been targeting was not the same man they remembered from the video footage.

"He's improved over the last 12 months before he came here, and what we'd seen of him from when we did our homework, he's become a much tighter player than last time he played against England," said Moores. "He got a beautiful ball from Steve Harmison to get rid of him in the first innings, but what he's done so well, is he's latched onto anything slightly loose and put it away for four. He hits down the ground now as well as square, so he's a pretty accomplished player."

His success is a vindication of the faith that was placed in him three years ago, and by extension, of the faith that South Africa has placed in the transformation process. "We've always rated Hash highly," said Arthur. "He obviously had a problem when he started, but when I came in [as coach], he was always the one we identified to bat at 3 for us."

Amla's second coming as a Test cricketer began 18 months after his England experience, when he once again topped the domestic averages to undermine the notion that he was merely a quota selection. He responded immediately with a commanding innings of 149 against New Zealand, against whom he collected his second Test century the following season in Centurion. If those two innings failed to convince the doubters that he truly belonged at the highest level, then an unbeaten seven-and-a-half hour 159 in the sapping heat of Chennai brooked no equivocation.

"We needed to give him a run and an opportunity," said Arthur. "When we look back to where the planning started for a tour like this, two years ago, we needed Hash to come into the tour with 20 Tests under his belt. He's blossomed and repaid the faith we showed in him, and he's going to be a quality player."

"He's so calm, he's got a good head and he's pretty streetwise for a player his age," said Arthur. With two days of an historic Test series remaining, Amla has a chance to apply the finishing touches to a total team effort, and silence his naysayers for once and for all.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo