April 4, 2012

In praise of Amla

South Africa's No. 3 has joined the likes of Laxman, Gower and Jayawardene among the most stylish of modern batsmen

It is time for heavy hearts. The Age of Laxmanship, the era of Laxmanliness, is drawing to a close. For a decade and more, Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman has been a byword, the byword, for sensory batsmanship. So long has the crown spent on his head, consensus has become truth. He's been the Earl of Ease, the Guv'nor of Grace, the Sultan of Serenity - a quiet monument to the aesthetic possibilities of the competitive arts as well as a rousing rebuttal to the argument that only grimaces finish first.

Even the name makes you salivate - all melody, harmony and rhythm, capped by that inspired abbreviation, VVS, with its assonant lilt and limitless acronymic potential. I'd revise a Disney ditty and plump for Very Very Scrumptious, but that's far too sappy next to the original Very Very Special.

Style and substance have reigned hand in glove. Here was the only batsman to consistently tame Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, a veritable Zen master of the fourth-innings chase. The other day I rewound his Kolkata 2001 masterpieces - his first-innings 59, studded with a dozen fours and cut short only by Peter Willey's over-enthusiastic forefinger, was no less pleasurable than that legendary 281, that peak of 21st century batsmanship, of Laxmanship, its resonance growing with every passing year. That the stage was Eden Gardens could not have been more apt.

All His Laxmanship's hallmarks were present and correct: the controlled, rubbery wristiness; the precise, pitter-pattering footwork and clever use of the crease; the unflusterable demeanour; the coordination of hands, eyes and head; the judgement of when to play early and when late, when to retreat and when to advance; the ball caressed, never brutalised. An ocular treat, sure, but a spiritual one too.

Being in thrall to beauty (could there be a more subjective assessment?) can make you fiercely, even illogically, protective of those who deliver it. Laxman has been no exception. To suggest he carries on in the wake of a mostly miserable 2011, during which he appeared to have all but lost the knack of keeping the ball on the ground, might be deemed excessively optimistic, not to say sentimental and a profound insult to India's bit-champing young lions, but come on. It would be nice if he hung around long enough to tackle England next winter, admit it.

Now take Tom Graveney, whose frequent omissions from England XIs in the 1950s and '60s become all the more astonishing when you consider that Geoffrey Boycott deemed his technique the one he most admired. To see a photo of Graveney standing tall and erect at the crease, pulling Charlie Griffith, the rip-snorting nastiest great bowler of the '60s, through midwicket as you or I might swat a fly, is to recognise the distinction between prosaic and poetic.

My main Achilles heel was David Gower, who batted with the same delicious lightness of touch as Claude Monet applied paint, Oscar Peterson tinkled ivory, and Pat Metheny plucks strings. It was his exclusion from the 1992-93 tour of India and Sri Lanka that spurred me to write his biography, and write it angry. Very angry.

Not that I was alone in my maternal instincts. Harold Pinter, the playwright, sent Gower a telegram attacking the selectors' "disgraceful" myopia. Whenever his hero was on TV, fearful of jinxing him, Tim Rice, Mr Jesus Christ Superstar, hid behind the sofa. Whenever he watched Gower pierce the covers with a luxuriant swish of the blade that served as an extension of heart, soul and nervous system, Francis Wheen, one of our more wittily incisive political columnists, found himself drawn to the celebrated Irish word-weaver WB Yeats:

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds.

Gower and bowler, warranted Alan Ross, the poet and former Observer cricket correspondent, were "accomplices in a kind of illusory magic". We're less romantic now, so it's bloody hard, if not impossible, to imagine anyone writing that about Alastair Cook, David Warner or Misbah-ul-Haq.

As sport has risen in tempo, beauty, sadly if inevitably, has become ever more elusive, especially in the more confrontational games. Where is the time, much less the space? Nicknaming a leading footballer "Stroller" - aka George Graham, a midfielder fabled for his disinclination to run - is now unthinkable. Twenty years ago, when hookers and props were more Samit Patel than Jonty Rhodes, rugby union rippled with flowing moves, the ball flipped from hand to hand while dummies were sold and defenders deluded; now the forwards are as fit as the backs, the backs are as beefy as the forwards, and creativity is stifled.

Fortunately, even at its snappiest, cricket encourages contemplation: there's always time to dwell and wallow. Yet if no stroke is quite so languidly, ravishingly lavish as the late cut, Barry Richards was not unjustified, in acclaiming an exquisitely tardy glide by AB de Villiers, when he lamented its scarcity. In the Twenty20 era, with its accent on urgency and improvisation, ends, more than ever, are prized higher than means.

The only sniff of showmanship comes at the culmination of a drive, when Amla checks his follow-through as if slamming on an inner handbrake. You could call it anti-showmanship. You could also call it quietly arrogant. "Check out these wrists, matey. The faster you bowl, the softer I hit."

So who are the heirs to His Laxmanship? So sublime in Galle, Mahela Jayawardene may finally be about to move out of that lengthy shadow; Ian Bell and Michael Clarke have frequently hinted at grandeur, even hauteur; there's a poised, polished stillness about Jonathan Trott; Alviro Petersen and JP Duminy flowed as sweetly in Wellington as Jack Daniel's over ice; Dwayne Smith reminded us in Bridgetown that he can charm birds from trees. My man, though, is still Hashim Amla.

Compact and exact, smooth of movement and precise of placement, his "V" is more of a "W". It might be pushing it to classify him as a right-handed, more orthodox Brian Lara, but not much. Watching small fourth-innings targets being chased down is seldom a rewarding expenditure of time, but to see him speed South Africa home against New Zealand in Hamilton was to bask in his art. One late cut (two in consecutive days, noch!) off Kane Williamson was executed with so much time to spare the bowler might as well have texted his intentions then tweeted them for good measure.

The only sniff of showmanship comes at the culmination of a drive, when he checks his follow-through as if slamming on an inner handbrake. You could call it anti-showmanship. You could also call it quietly arrogant. "Check out these wrists, matey. The faster you bowl, the softer I hit."

Timing is an elusive, often illusory beast. The line separating good from bad is miniscule, measurable in hundredths of seconds and subject to the vicissitudes of the pitch. In Galle it was timing that hoisted Bell and Jayawardene above the wicket-fest. In more taxing conditions against Australia, West Indies showed us both sides of the coin. Kieran Powell, a lean leftie from Nevis, stole the breath away more than once. Marlon Samuels and Darren Bravo, too, uncorked strokes for which "elegant" really is the only word. On other occasions - at the risk of resurrecting a stereotype - they all seemed a little too intent on looking cool. Dancing daintily along that tightrope for the most part, there were also too many times when they looked as if they were wading in treacle. The most effective batsmen, Kieron Pollard and Darren Sammy, were the muscle men.

IT'S THAT IMPRESSION of absolute effortlessness, fuelled by optimum timing, that sets Laxman and Amla and Jayawardene apart; that elevated Graveney and Gower above their peers; Mohammad Azharuddin, Carl Hooper, Damien Martyn and Mark Waugh above theirs. Englishmen are particularly susceptible to this. After all, there's nothing we envy more than someone who succeeds without appearing to break sweat (hence Len Hutton's distaste for Graveney, and Graham Gooch's for Gower). James Bond may have been played by a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman and even an Aussie, but he was created by a Londoner and personified a brand of archetypal Englishman, right down to that addiction to scrambled eggs. This is a land run by the arched eyebrow, the headquarters of disdain.

Amla is different. He always looks as if he's trying. Which is why he's a natural No. 3, why that top-edged pull off Mark Gillespie in Wellington was such a shock, and why you can envisage him scoring a triple-century, a feat attained by Jayawardene alone of the aforementioned luminaries. He's versatile too. Over the past five years he is one of just two men, alongside de Villiers, to average over 50 in Tests and ODIs.

Curiously, though, while there is no doubting the technique or craftsmanship, there is no aura of superiority, no ring of absolute confidence, none of the swagger one sometimes detects in Ravi Bopara. Maybe that's because, unlike Bopara - the latest in a growing line of Anglo-Indian internationalists and merely the second Sikh to represent England - Amla, as an Indian Protea, is the first of his breed and thus bears a bigger burden of responsibility.

There's one other oddity. Between them, helmet and beard dwarf Amla's face. Maybe that's why he looks smaller than Gower and Azhar and Laxman, even though, depending on your source, he's either the same height or an inch taller. Maybe size, too, is in the eye of the beholder?

His name conjures up a Yiddish word, hamish, a term of affection applied to someone warm and loving. Throw in my Scottish ancestry and I don't think I can possibly resist dubbing him His Hamishness.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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