Great expectations follow Amla's rise
May 2006. Newlands. Hashim Amla's fourth Test. No great expectations considering the previous three only yielded 62 runs. Even fewer after New Zealand bat for more than two days and declare on 593 for 8. Almost none when South Africa lose Graeme Smith in the 13th over of their reply with just 36 on the board. Amla authors his own story: A maiden Test century, awkward backlift, funny twirl and all, and sizable partnerships with Boeta Dippenaar, Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince steer South Africa to safety. Match drawn.
February 2010. Nagpur. Hashim Amla's 42nd Test. With seven centuries to his name and an average of 40.75 some great expectations have been met. Others loom greater. South Africa slump to 6 for 2. One of the men out is Smith. All eyes on Amla. He puts on 340 with Kallis and records a double-hundred, finishing 24 runs behind what was then the South African record for the highest individual score. The stage is set for AB de Villiers, who plays a cameo half-century. South Africa win by an innings and six runs.
July 2012. London. Hashim Amla's 60th Test. His century count has doubled in two years and sits at 14. The average is at 46.98. Like his team, he is close to the world No. 1 ranking, and going in search of it. Smith's 100th Test. Great expectations. South Africa are 1 for 1 but the captain digs deep. He scores 131 with Amla at his side. Smith is dismissed. Amla bats on. And on. And on. His time at the crease lasts 13 hours and 10 minutes. He uses the same pair of batting gloves. His 311 not out is the first triple-century by a South African. They win the match by an innings and 12 runs and are on the road to the top.
December 2012. Perth. Hashim Amla's 65th Test. He has three more centuries and his average is flirting with 50 - 49.66. The series is locked at 0-0. South Africa want the win. With a first innings lead of 62, Amla and Smith blitz their way to 206 inside 33 overs at a run rate of more than six to the over. Following them, de Villiers can play with freedom. He scores 169. South Africa win by 309 runs.
You see Amla has been shadowing Smith, unburdening de Villiers and building his own legacy since he started playing. Now, it's just become official.
Amla's appointment as South Africa's Test captain is a decision laced with as much subtlety as his batting. He was not the obvious choice - that was de Villiers - or the crafty choice - that was Faf du Plessis - but he was the best choice in the current climate of South African cricket. They need stability, calm and focus as they head into the post-Smith-and-Kallis era. Those are all qualities that describe the Amla the world has come to know.
Nothing seems to get to him too much. The most commonly used words in Amla's interactions with the media are "fortunately" and "lovely." He tends to consider himself lucky, not talented, skilled or just plain bloody good, when he does well. He credits his team-mates before himself and he describes playing a game that remains attritional at its core with an adjective the rest of us would use for a cup of tea.
That relaxed public persona provides comfort and security to those close to him, even the most highly strung like Dale Steyn. Last year, Steyn tweeted a picture of Amla reading the Quran and said, "Actually, If I ever needed inspiration I just turn to my left & see Hashim Amla reading the Quran! Wat a legend." Having the firebrand fast bowler in his corner is an added plus for Amla because he already has a guarantee Steyn will give his all for him.
If that, and his unusual friendship with New Zealand rugby player and heavyweight boxer Sonny Bill Williams, is not enough to unsettle opposition, then Amla's demeanour could be. In the same way as a moment of total silence stuns a noisy room, no one is quite sure what to make of Amla's nice-guy nature. In a leaked dossier of how the Australians planned to assert themselves over South Africa, their plan against Amla was to sledge him. The document turned out to be fake but not even the author, creative as he was, could come up with anything better to undo Amla.
It seems an impossible task, which is why South Africa's selectors decided he is the man for the most difficult job going in their circles at the moment. Appointing Amla, who is a decade into his international career and according to convener of selectors Andrew Hudson "comfortable in his batting", rather than de Villiers or du Plessis allows the former to continue as the first choice wicketkeeper and the latter to secure his spot in Test cricket.
The inevitable wondering of whether the extra responsibility will detract from Amla's batting is something Hudson does not believe needs to be considered. That Amla gave up vice-captaincy to concentrate on his own game and then brought it to a level that he was satisfied with is enough to convince Hudson and his panel that Amla is ready for the role, not least because he will be, what Hudson called, an "inclusive" leader.
That word carries heavy connotations, especially as Amla is the first full-time captain "of colour," but few will argue that he was appointed on anything other than merit. Better still, Amla has heard the argument before and been colour-blind to it. He must have known he was always good enough, although he never said so.
When he was first picked, he was labeled a quota player even though he averaged 49.76 in the season before he was selected as a 21-year-old. The following season, after being dropped, he went back to the domestic game and averaged 50.15.
Amla had the quality to justify his place then and in so doing, he allowed South African cricket to change. In the years that followed, he pushed it to change in directions that would reflect diversity and difference. His refusal to wear the Castle Lager logo because of his religious beliefs, and Cricket SA and the sponsor's willingness to agree to that even as he was appointed captain, shows tolerance. His ascendence to the top of the Test batting rankings, his role as a key batsman in South Africa's rise to No. 1, shows the depth and class of South African cricket. So that is how we come to...
June 2014. Johannesburg. Hashim Amla's greatest test lies ahead. Great expectations.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent