The wristy joy of Amla
Hashim Amla: born 31st March 1983, Durban, South Africa. Sixty Test matches, 4775 runs, 15 hundreds, 50.26 average. (One day cricket: 2881 runs, nine hundreds, 56.49 average.) Those are the figures. They don't begin to tell the story.
Amla's grandparents are out of Gujarat, a dry state. When he earned a place in the South African side, the first of Indian descent to do so, he asked to be allowed to not wear the South African Breweries sponsor logo. His wish was granted, saying much about the respect in which he was held by those who mattered. The jealous few said he was a "quota" player - one of the beneficiaries of "affirmative action" - but whether this was the case or not is irrelevant. He is man and cricketer, chosen by others. What was he to do? Turn the place down? Though not always sensibly applied, the principle of affirmative action was the right thing at the right time. Among others, Amla is proof.
While many raged against the machine, Amla went about his business. Public emotion is not his thing, though goodness knows what he has felt inside. He tends to downgrade the family tree and says simply, "I am a South African." He celebrates with the same enthusiasm as his team-mates, if not with their gusto, for there are good times to be had without alcohol - ask Shaun Pollock. Educated, thoughtful, humble, generous, amusing, Amla has the respect of the dressing room. This is the place that finds out a cricketer.
His captain had few words left for the 311 runs made. Graeme Smith glowed, in part because of his own joy at the entire match, and in part because his superb leadership has encouraged Amla to take centre stage himself. Smith came after apartheid, a lucky break, and only knows all men equal. Ten days ago Paul Simon played Graceland to 50,000 people in Hyde Park. He sang "The Boy in the Bubble": "These are the days of miracle and wonder / This is the long distance call / The way the camera follows us in slo-mo / The way we look to us all."
Of course, the innings showed us much about inner strength and desire, but, best of all perhaps, it gave us time to appreciate a considerable talent. The surprise with Amla is that he looks like he is trying, which is unusual for one whose strokes appear so effortless. His footwork is a paragon of economy - mainly back in defence, then forward in attack. Nothing is exaggerated, bar the quirky backlift that many a coach has studied before concluding against the suggestion of change.
Of modern batsmen, VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and Mahela Jayawardene stand out as stylists. Ian Bell is close and Amla is next among equals. In the age of the big hit, ease and grace provide welcome release. Barry Richards, who trod the boards at Durban High School 40 years previous to the man who wears his stylist's crown today, will delight in Amla's off-side play, which punctures gaps with absurd regularity, and in the potency of strokes either side of point and extra cover that skim across the turf with delicious timing and no hint of risk.
I like the off-drives, which come in two flavours. The first is a kind of check shot that punches both the ball and the opponent back from whence they came. This is played with softly held hands but firm wrists that confirm the blade straight at impact, allowing the transferred weight of the body to create the power. The second comes with a longer stride forward or back, with the same gentle hands but with a looser, almost rubberised, use of wrists that flick the bat through impact. The whiplash effect is remarkable, not unlike that created by Mohammad Azharuddin, and is finished by a dramatic follow-through that wraps the bat around the surprisingly narrow shoulders of the executioner.
The secret to Amla's play is this use of wrists, which allow late contact with the ball and no loss of power. The Oval pitch was slow but the Indian in him transcended it, more so than Smith, Jacques Kallis or Alastair Cook, who recorded fine innings of their own. If Laxman is not quite the right comparison, perhaps Mohammad Yousuf, nee Youhana, is nearest in aesthetics. Certainly Yousuf has similar patience and the same sense of collected calm that says all is well with the world when I'm at the wicket.
Yousuf used to speak highly of Graeme Swann, thinking him the hardest spinner to beat in the battle of flight. Frequent attempts to use his feet and get to the pitch resulted in panic, so in the end he stayed home and played from the crease. Amla took this a stage further at The Oval by taking guard on off stump and playing back to a vast percentage of the balls he faced - straightforward enough, given the lack of pace. This meant that a forward stride took him well outside the line of off stump and allowed him to work the ball with the spin and without undue risk. Occasionally frustration forced Swann to overpitch and then, whoosh, Amla struck. In the conditions, the diminishing of Swann was the key to unlock England's attack. Amla played it perfectly.
It is a bit of a cliché to say that Amla speaks for South Africa today. However, we can acknowledge that his batting is cause for celebration and that his achievements reflect the greater cultural richness now evident in his land. Yes, he has fought his battles but only those fought by other sportsmen - battles of form, fitness, insecurity and selection - in every corner of the world. The 300 showed us more of him, but we will never see it all; that is for family and trusted friends. This is one cool customer, warming to his task. A final thought: don't play him at poker.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK