India v South Africa, 1st Test, Chennai, 2nd day March 27, 2008

Amla's healing touch

With his gentle smile and composed batting, Hashim Amla seems a throwback to an earlier age

Hashim Amla rated the Chennai hundred his second best, behind the 176 not out against New Zealand in Johannesburg © AFP

It may just be a coincidence but South Africa's two batting stars on the first two days of this Test were both touted as future leaders. Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla came to the crease with a mature approach and took advantage of near-perfect batting conditions. Neither offered a chance and it took a mid-pitch misunderstanding before Amla finally headed back.

With his gentle smile and unhurried celebrations Amla appears to be a throwback to an earlier age, a time when cricketers played the game in addition to their day jobs. He expends minimal energy in his strokes and rarely loses his composure - as was evident here when he was confronted with the manic energy of Sreesanth. Cover-drives dripped off his bat like sweat did off the Indian fielders' brows, but with the sort of effortless ease that's usually the preserve of batsmen from the subcontinent.

Amla may look like a cricketer from a different era but fortunately he didn't play in South Africa in the '70s and '80s, a time when fine cricketers like Hussain Ayub, Tiffy Barnes and Yakub Omar were languishing in the wilderness. While white South African cricketers at least got matches against touring rebel teams, the rest weren't recognised in their first-class system (that, of course, changed when the ICC recently decided to confer first-class status to some of those matches).

A doctor's son, Amla was seven when South Africa stepped out of the apartheid era, and it must have helped that he wasn't too aware of the country's history till he went to school. His rise has been gradual but he finally appears to have cemented his spot. Until recently he was seen as someone who thrived at home against New Zealand (his first three hundreds came in South Africa, all against the same opposition). Slowly but surely, though, he's showing he belongs.

The pitch was totally in his favour but the conditions demanded intense concentration. Leading the consolidation, he paced his innings expertly, nudging and driving with complete control. He gauged that the Indian fielders were tiring and stole singles at every opportunity, disturbing the bowlers' rhythm with classical strokeplay. It might not have been complete entertainment, but for efficiency, look no further.

Though he refused to admit it, there is an Indian element to his style. His grandparents left Surat in Gujarat for South Africa many years ago and it was only fitting that his debut came in India - in front of an intimidating audience at Eden Gardens in Kolkata. There's a touch of wristiness in the way he approaches spin - unlike the more forceful manner of a Graeme Smith or a Mark Boucher - and seldom is he rash.

Does he think South Africa's batsmen are handling spin better these days or does it just come with playing more in the subcontinent? "I think it's a bit of both," he said. "I think it comes to a bit of experience, and effort as well. South Africans at one stage had the reputation of not playing spin too well. In the last couple of seasons we've done quite well in the subcontinent. I think it's to do with experience, exposure, conditions ... a couple of young guys have toured India in the '90s and that experience helps."

Amla reached his hundred with three consecutive fours off Sreesanth, an apt reply to the histrionics he had to put up with earlier in the day. Gently removing his helmet, he raised his arms to the pavilion, giving an impression of a contented sufi after a long penance. He rated it his second best hundred, behind the 176 not out against New Zealand in Johannesburg - but added that it had given him plenty of confidence and satisfaction.

"Obviously my 176 against New Zealand was better, because it was a trying time for me. My career depended on it that time. This one is up there because it's away from home. Anyway, away from home is a huge challenge. For me, it's the first century away from home and it's a huge bonus. Something I was always determined to try and achieve, and I'm glad it happened in he first Test."

Four days from now he will celebrate his 25th birthday, an age when batsmen usually enter their peak. He has given himself a good reason to celebrate and also provided his team with a chance to set the agenda for the rest of the game.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo