January 29, 2009

The unbreakable South African

Humble, resilient, modest and unflappable, Hashim Amla has overcome plenty and emerged the better for it


Easy does it: Amla on the 2008 tour of England © Getty Images
 

Hashim Amla counts amongst the most serene of cricketers. Nothing seems to ruffle him. Along the way both life and cricket have tried to disturb his tranquility, only to be met with a mild smile and a broad bat. Fast bowlers have pounded him with bumpers. Nothing personal, you understand, just that he was a new kid on the block and his back-foot game was regarded as suspect; mistakenly as it turned out. Refusing to hook, he simply parried the bouncers as he has everything else, and waited for the storm to abate, whereupon he resumed collecting runs in his unflustered way. At times he has struggled against spin and found long tours hard to endure as the attraction of hotels wanes, but he has met every challenge, scored heavily in India, and finished the Australian tour with a stirring innings in Adelaide.

For that matter, his technique was taken apart in his first few showings in Test cricket, and by Englishmen. They had a point, and as always Amla listened with detachment and made the necessary adjustments.

Too humble to disdain criticism, too resilient to be distracted, the young Durbanite has a toughness in him not easily detected from afar. But then he has overcome a lot, has fought for his place every step of the way, has managed to remain cool amidst the furies that sometimes rage around him. Always he has retained his inner core while recognising the need to improve, and without judging others. Accordingly he has fit comfortably into cricket teams containing a broad swathe of humanity, and a fair share of ruffians, and has cheerfully joined in activities without ever selling himself short. After the MCG Test had been won, and with the ground almost empty, Amla accompanied his comrades as they returned to the middle of the ground to celebrate in style. He is no more po-faced than Bill Lawry or Ian Redpath, fellow abstainers and just as popular.

Throughout, Amla's strong point has been his mind. As much as his game, it has been tested in the crucible. Inane remarks have been made about him, and the offended party has met them with a tolerant shrug, not a withering counter. He was asked to comment on the Mumbai attacks, as if he were a spokesman for an entire faith in all its glories and shames, and not merely an impressive young man who happens to be a Muslim. In his early days he was often denigrated as a quota player, a cricketer who owed his place more to government decree than individual merit. Of course it was unfair.

Perhaps he was promoted a little prematurely into the highest ranks and into the captaincy of his province, but he had been scoring heavily in domestic cricket, was respected by his peers, and had led many youth teams. In any case it is nothing new for selectors to become excited about a gifted 21-year-old. Indeed, it ought to be part of the job description. Amla was duly dropped and duly bounced back, still the same serene and skilful cricketer, just a bit more seasoned.

Of all his achievements, Amla's emergence as the first member of the large Indian community to play Test cricket for South Africa has been the most significant. During the apartheid years the Indians tended to lie low. Shy by nature, resourceful by disposition, aware of their origins as indentured labour, they were caught in a racial no-man's land, and so concentrated on making money and gaining a good education. To them cricket was an enthusiasm, almost an indulgence. Certainly it could not be a profession.

Inevitably the game was played, and well played in places, notably in the strongholds around Durban. It was hard to assess the quality of the players because they were seldom pitted against outside forces. Self-sufficiency was paramount.

Obviously there were exceptions, in politics and cricket. After all, Mahatma Gandhi made his name as an activist lawyer in South Africa, was thrown out of the first-class seats on a train at Pietermaritzburg station in the capital city of Kwa-Zulu Natal (as it has become). It is Amla's home province. Nowadays the Pietermaritzburg city centre contains a statue of the Mahatma. The Indian communities also produced their own parties, and in some cases activists of the ANC - until recently the speaker in parliament was an Indian woman respected for her integrity and admired for her courage in supporting the ANC in its underground years. Nevertheless Amla grew up in an essentially inward-looking society somewhat reluctant to enter the new mainstream.

 
 
Throughout, Amla's strong point has been his mind. As much as his game, it has been tested in the crucible
 

He has played his part in changing all that. Every community needs an inspirational figure capable of lighting the path forwards. Makhaya Ntini has demonstrated the untapped capacity of the black population. Ashwell Prince proved that he was as tough as a trekking Afrikaner, as durable as any desert nomad. But the Indians also needed to break through in the sporting arena.

Sportsmen can become national, and even international, figures in months. Ask JP Duminy. Amla belongs to a younger, bolder generation that had not been involved in all the palaver and patronising and repressing; a generation committed, expressly or by implication, to the ideas advanced by Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King and the other giants of the era; a bunch that wanted to live in a mixed and united nation, where a person was judged only by the content of his character. A group that wanted to cross the great divide.

And so, without fear or recrimination, he started to climb the mountain. Although he played alongside them or against them in youth teams, Amla may not have realised that he already had allies in AB de Villiers and Duminy. If there was a more heartwarming sight than this pair embracing after the winning runs had been scored in Perth, then it was that of Graeme Smith and Amla hugging after the Indian had collected the winning runs in Melbourne. And they were joined on the podium by Smith's wholehearted embrace of Ntini after the SCG Test had almost been saved, thanks not least to the supposedly haphazard tailender's defiant 91-minute occupation.

For all the turbulences of the period, with its desperation to find brown-skinned players worthy of advancement, Amla's rise was orthodox even as his background was distinctive. Born into an affluent family whose roots lay in the state of Gujarat, he was reared in a middle-class home and sent to a highly regarded cricketing and academic school, Durban HS, previously the alma mater of Lance Klusener and Barry Richards. His parents are doctors and Ahmed, his older brother, is a fine batsman in his own right, albeit one held back for a time by the hotness that often affects youth. Nowadays Ahmed is so well respected that he captains the provincial team. In short, the Amlas are intelligent, professional, serious but not solemn, and keen on cricket. Evidently the parents are also enlightened because they did not discourage their younger boy from trying his luck in cricket. Previous generations of Indian parents might have pointed him towards a "proper" profession.

Towards the end of his schooldays Amla suddenly gained prominence. Truth to tell, his career moved ahead of his cricket, ahead even of his maturity. He secured selection for the KZN and South Africa Under-19 sides, scored four hundreds in senior cricket as a 21-year-old, and promptly found himself asked to captain his provincial side and bat for his country against England. It was too much to put on anyone's plate. He was not ready to bear such a heavy investment. It was the same with Justin Ontong when he was claimed. A cricketer cannot succeed as a symbol, only as a batsman or bowler. Everything follows from that.

Observers relying on his form that summer assumed that Amla had been promoted too high, as opposed to too early. At the crease his bat and feet seemed to have lives of their own. His game looked about as well organised as a bowl of spaghetti. He had more movements than a Wagner opera. His frailties were exposed and after two matches he was informed that his game was too loose for this company, and he was unceremoniously sent back to domestic cricket. It was the right thing to do. Typically, too, Amla responded calmly to his axing. Rejecting suggestions that he had been dropped on racial groans or because his face did not fit, he gently pointed out that his edge had done more work than his middle and that he had a few technical issues to address. His calmness under pressure, his refusal to agitate, conforms that he has the capacity to captain the team should the opportunity arise.


Amla has has "fit comfortably into cricket teams containing a broad swathe of humanity" © Getty Images
 

Shortly after losing his place in the South Africa aside, Amla stepped down as KZN captain. He wanted to concentrate on his batting. Again it was a modest and wise decision taken by a man untouched by anger.

Before long, the runs were flowing. Bowlers could not find a chink in his armour. Raised on bouncy pitches in Durban, he was as comfortable as anyone against pace, bounce and movement. But then he has never been remotely as fragile as he seems. Blessed with an ability to play the ball late and to clip it away with posthumous flicks of the wrist, he was also sound against spin. Moreover he could concentrate on the next ball, did not drift into reveries or start thinking about lotto or lattes. He could occupy the crease as another man does a sofa.

Confidence restored, nuts and bolts tightened, the young man recaptured his place in the Test team and reinforced it with a careful hundred against New Zealand. Now it was apparent that he had the temperament and the technique to accept the responsibilities imposed on occupants of the first-wicket-down position. He could with equanimity face the second ball of the match or the 300th. Always he remained unflustered, understood his task and often carried it out.

And so it came to pass that Amla took his place in a powerful batting order and a successful, jovial and cosmopolitan national aide. South Africa and Amla performed magnificently in 2008, drawing a series in India, beating England and overcoming the Australians on their own patch. Throughout, the team displayed the tenacity of a spider and the spirit of a Scottish regiment responding to the bugle. Amla played his part, calming nerves, unfurling numerous sweet strokes off the back foot, supporting his colleagues. He is a son, a Muslim, an Indian, a fine batsman and a worthy member of a South Africa team that represents not the poverty of life but its richness.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments