Amla eases through gears past to inspire South Africa
Hashim Amla spent the day in his jumper, the original long-sleeve cable knit with the green and gold trim. Nice touch. A fresh breeze whipped across the ground, along with an occasional squall of rain, and the England bowlers swung the ball when they pitched it up to the bat, which was not often enough. The pitch was fine, if a touch slow, and the cricket highly competitive. Amla seemed to take little notice of any of this. Not much ruffles Hashim Amla, the most serene of men.
Thus it was a surprise when, thirty minutes after tea, the most serene of men hooked indiscreetly at a short ball from Stuart Broad and holed out to a Mark Wood at long leg. Wood was gleeful, Broad much the same. Amla was mortified. He stood in the crease, bent over his bat, head bowed. It is one thing to get out, quite another to be the guilty party. He held this pose until embarrassment told him to go. He will have sat quietly in the dressing-room, contemplating the events, before unzipping the Velcro, peeling off the damp clothes and settling into mufti. It is a gift to move on.
By his own high standards, Amla has been below par. During this past 12 months he has averaged less than 35 as against all but 50 through his career. He made a hundred in his hundredth test against Sri Lanka but that bright innings was surrounded by others more dim. Imperceptibly, he had mislaid the sharpness in his technique and the crispness of his timing. He had been batting more from the crease than from forward or back and found himself "squared up" by the moving ball. Consequently, he has pushed at the ball rather than let it come to him in time-honoured Amla fashion. Perhaps, he is running out of years though it hardly seemed so here.
At his best, he has been among the very finest of batsmen - a player of long innings that have substance at their core. English folk remember the triple hundred at The Oval in 2012 with awe. South Africans remember his long journey to that point. Both life and the game he loves have tried to derail him. He was the first of Durban's Indian community to play Test cricket for South Africa and rode the responsibility with modesty and honour. The Indians in the Natal province ran their lives quietly and industriously. It was largely an insular way and Amla played a large part in the inspiration of new attitudes and ideals. The same can be said of Makhaya Ntini and Herschelle Gibbs, other exciting cricket talents whose style - both idiosyncratic and aesthetic - has attracted attention and rewarded faith.
Under great leadership from Graeme Smith a clear vision appeared before the South Africa team: a vision of breadth, diversity and trust. Players of all backgrounds and disciplines were empowered and encouraged. A team emerged, truly at one with each other, and those who watched them began to step into the same sun.
Initially, Amla's quirky method attracted criticism. He looped the bat out towards gully and dropped it back on the inside of the wicketkeeper to such a degree that the doubters said such a method could not survive the next level up. But, time after time, it defied convention and proved sustainable. Briefly, the short ball was a problem as he fenced and boxed at bouncers rather than swayed or hooked; spinners were briefly an issue too for he had no pace to work with but he countered these imposters with a mountain of runs.
Always his mind has overcome. It is strong, it is calm, it is clear. He listened to sensible criticism and made adjustments. Humility provided the foundation for an ambitious sportsman, aware that other opinions had a contribution to make. He retained his resilient inner self while recognising the need for learning and then he branched out to bat as if on another planet.
Few men time the ball so beautifully. An Amla stroke is an artistic thing born of fast eye and strong wrists. The more of them there are, the more his play seems to flow as if it is a river of content. Opposition bowlers double-take on occasions, as might a man on other side of the net to Roger Federer, disbelieving of the ease with which they have been dissected.
He is set slim at marginally above average height. He stands upright at the crease and perfectly still, with his bat raised a little from the floor. The free-wheeling pick up has not changed much over the years, the footwork has improved. He moves quickly back and across before pressing forward and holding his position around off stump as the bowler delivers. At this time his bat is a fraction above the stumps, face slightly shut and the hands that grip the handle so softly are kept close to the body. From here, he can move forward and back with small steps that bring his eyes to the line of the ball. His facial expression never changes. Like the man behind it, Amla is a constant.
At Lord's he was twice undone by spinners, first to Moeen Ali who spun one sharply to trap him lbw, and then by Liam Dawson who made a decent ball hold its line and allow the umpire to again raise a finger. Throughout that innings at the Oval in 2012, he so utterly outwitted Graeme Swann that he took the game away from England. Thus, we were shocked to see the way in which he succumbed last week and it raised questions that needed answers. Was South Africa's sure thing running out of years faster than we suspected?
From the evidence at Trent Bridge the answer would be not. After an awkward start, he settled and began to graze upon the field of English seam. Sublime drives and cuts were matched by surgical play through the leg side and obdurate defence. As he reeled off boundaries, easing through the gears of his past, our own minds went back to the unlikely beginnings and the glorious conclusions. We have long watched him unflustered and across his task; we have been in awe of his concentration and marvelled at the measure and consistency in his performance. He is a man for the ages, a totem for his people and a cricketer for young followers to emulate. Indeed, he is an example to us all.
As he finally turned for the pavilion upon his dismal, we felt as sad as he looked. A hundred was for the taking but had been burned. Such an error hardly seemed on the cards but as Amla will tell you himself, all things are possible if you want them enough. Today, Broad's hunger won through for England but the series is alive yet and the proudest of South Africans is sure make his mark upon it.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK