Hashim Amla and the path less trodden
Durban's beachfront is no place for the gentle or the genteel. Its multi-storey grottos of inequity bump and grind against each other along what was once the famous Golden Mile, and the sharply sweet scent of danger lurks in the air. Or is that just marijuana?
In the unforgiving light of morning, the detritus of the dark hours that have gone before is invariably strewn everywhere, like the contents of a fading goddess' upended handbag. The look in the eyes of those who have survived another night here is a lesson to all. There, but for a drug habit, a drinking problem, an abusive parent or partner, or an innocence robbed in some other way, go us.
It would seem an unwelcoming place for the decent, the spiritual and the pious. Someone like Hashim Amla, who waves from his car and stops at the kerbside to pick me up as arranged.
"It's very close, just here," he says as we drive along the beachfront, then one street removed. We turn left and into a parking lot, and there our destination duly is: the North Beach Mosque.
A sacred place should not find itself plonked in so profane a spot. But before that thought can grow horns and a tail we're through the door, shoes in hand, and into a different world.
The sudden serenity washes everything silent. Minds are summarily uncluttered. Clarity is all around. A warm, bright strength wells up deep inside the ribcage.
As a cultural excursion, it was memorable. As an inkling into what has helped make Hashim Amla the man and the cricketer he is, it was invaluable.
Of all the disparate South African communities who hold cricket dear, the one that counts Amla among its own is probably the least understood by the rest. There are South Africans who find him inscrutable, mysterious, other. Best they hasten to a mosque to broaden their education. That's not to suggest Amla is some divine creation, or that he is the fine player he is because of his beliefs and how he puts them into practice; but a glimpse inside the culture that has guided him to manhood teaches us much about the oasis of calm he is in the rough sea that the South African team sometimes becomes.
Amla is, before and after everything, his own man. Evidence of that, from one perspective, is his rejection of alcohol in the midst of a group of men who pride themselves on how much beer they get through in the throes of a victory celebration. Another view holds that he is different because he has eschewed the opportunities given him by the circumstances of his birth to make his way in a world that understands him. Instead, he has chosen another way, and with it the knowledge that he will be expected to explain himself at every turn to people who will sometimes disapprove of what for him is normal behaviour. It takes a strong man to clear a path through all that and get on with the basic business of scoring big runs in Test matches. Amla is just such a man, and he has spent the past year proving just how strong he is.
His 253 not out against India in Nagpur in February was the high point, and plenty of lesser peaks were conquered in the ascent. Of course, more mountains loom. South Africans are contemplating a season in which their team will be pitted against a potent India at home before they embark on the grand adventure of the 2011 World Cup on the subcontinent.
Amla is entirely likely to be central to the drama. The sight of him striding to the crease is fast becoming as reassuring as Jacques Kallis' appearance on the field has been for a generation. The difference is that Amla brings with him a powerful sense of possibility. We know that he can do more than keep South Africa out of trouble or dig them out of a hole.
Deservedly, then, he was nominated six times at the South African cricket awards. The only trophy he didn't win was the one that went to AB de Villiers as ODI player of the year.
"You don't think about all that, but I didn't expect to win five awards," Amla said. "The six nominations was really hyped up. I couldn't understand the big deal, but I'm really grateful."
As ever, his eyes remained fixed on the real prize. "I had a really good year, and to try and match that will be a major challenge. I need to develop my game and continue to grow, because I've actually achieved very little compared to other players out there."
Not that many years ago, some stopped just short of labelling Amla a charlatan at the crease. His back-lift was loopy, he flinched in the face of really quick bowling, he wouldn't know a googly from a chunk of gorgonzola, and he was a poor judge of a run. The rap sheet on why he wasn't the real deal as a Test batsman was long and damning.
But there was some sense in all the bluster, and he went back and worked on his weaknesses. Now those charges are faint echoes, although not in Amla's ears. "I don't know if those days are over. With all the ups and downs of cricket, I'm bound to hear those things again."
Perhaps his most impressive achievement is to have remained true to himself despite being tossed this way and that by the raging cross currents of his life. It would have been all too easy to succumb, one way or the other. To emerge as the same man, now matured, as he was when he dived into the maelstrom, is a wondrous joy.
"The most important thing is to have confidence in yourself to be able to do what you set out to do," he said. "Any young player coming from any background is bound to come into the national team with insecurities. You are going to wonder if you're good enough."
That he certainly is. Inshallah, he will be for years to come.
Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa