The Amlas come home

On the afternoon of the first day of the Kolkata Test there appeared a moment that will surely find its way into all future histories of South African cricket. At the fall of Jacques Rudolph's wicket there arrived at the crease the slim, bearded figure of Hashim Amla, the first player of Indian origin to play for South Africa. Amla's proud father, Dr Mahomed H Amla, was present to witness his son's brief but assured debut innings. I met Mr Amla on the second afternoon to speak to him about his son and about the story of the Amla family in South Africa, of which Hashim represents the third generation. In some ways it is a classic immigrant family's tale.
"My father, Hassim, emigrated from Surat to South Africa in 1927, along with his two brothers," said Mr Amla. "He was only fourteen then. By that time there was already a tradition of Indian workers coming to South Africa, mostly as farm labourers - it had been happening since 1860. My father worked for a while in a retail store, then as a commercial salesman. My mother was South Africa-born, but her family too came from Surat. I was one of ten children.

"Those were different times. As children we were interested in sport, but we never could think of a career in it. In any case there were no opportunities to represent your country because of the political system in place then. It's only since the nineties that opportunities have become more widely available to all South Africans. Hashim was lucky that, just at the time when he was growing up, everything had begun to change. There was a system in place and if you had talent, you could make it. Although we were now South African, in some ways we still remained an Indian family. We have Indian food at home, and are respectful of Indian traditions. In fact some people said to me yesterday that some of his shots were very Asian in their execution, very wristy - even though he learnt his skills on South African pitches.

"Hashim went to a school that had a cricketing background - Barry Richards went to it, and also the swing bowler Richard Snell - and there they spotted his talent early. He was only 16 when he was chosen to play a game against the visiting England team. After that, every time a team came on a tour and an invitation side was arranged to play them, Hashim would be picked for it. In one such game he took 80 off the Australian team. So you might say that even though he is quite young, he's been waiting for his opportunity for quite some time."

Mr Amla was born in 1950, and grew up in a world of segregation that has now thankfully been dismantled. He reflects on how much has changed in the span of his lifetime. "Hashim is lucky that he did most of his growing up post-1990, in a new South Africa. Now he is the first player of Asian origin to represent the national team, and there's another player, a kid named Imran Khan, who may soon be the second." He observes that the larger forces of history have a great deal to do with the chances that individuals get. "Several high-calibre black players of an earlier generation never got any opportunities. Basil D'Oliviera had to seek his future in another country. So much has changed in South Africa."

So there is that side of the Amla family story, that can be placed within the history of twentieth-century South Africa, but, as with any immigrant family, also another side, with its roots in India. "I don't think that when my father arrived in South Africa, at the age of fourteen," says Mr Amla, "he would have ever imagined in his wildest dreams that his grandson would one day play cricket for South Africa, and, what's more, actually come to India to make his debut."

There is a symmetry to this story that seems to please Mr Amla very much. "This is my first visit to the country as well," he says. "Unfortunately it is a short trip and I have to return to my practice as soon as the tour is over. But these have been days I will never forget. I need to come back again."

Chandrahas Choudhury is staff writer of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.