The first time I saw South Africa’s Hashim Amla walk to the crease, I was a sleepy-eyed 16-year-old, standing at square-leg, sniffling and sneezing under the haze of early summer dew.
Walking in at the fall of an early wicket, Amla arrived at the crease amidst a wave of awed whispers. He was the kid who had just been appointed captain of his high school. This was serious business. This was Durban High School after all, the alma mater of the likes of Barry Richards and Lance Klusener - not an itsy bitsy fantasy league in a trailer park school.
But I couldn’t have been less bothered. I continued slouching and picked at my nose.
Facing up to our opening speedster - a wonderful bloke called Mark Shadwell (whom I might add, dismissed Graeme Smith and troubled Jacques Rudolf in other school encounters later that year), Amla took guard and offered a pristine back foot punch that ricocheted off his blade with the sweetest of thuds.
My indifference was thwarted in an instant.
I stood there, wide-eyed, gushing at the condescension in that opening stroke. Whereas the pull is a shot of defiance, and the flick through mid-wicket a shot of cruel cheekiness, the back foot cover drive is the ultimate domination of a fast bowler. Any fool can lean forward into an over-pitched delivery and push gently through the covers. To stand tall on your toes, and bargain with the rising ball like a kid would with his candy, and then offer it the full face of the blade is a slap in the face of any fast bowler. The symmetrical domination of bat over ball is what German engineering is to precise.
Suffice to say I stopped picking at my nose.
Some thirteen years on, it’s precisely Amla’s belligerent back foot drives and pernicious punches through the off-side that lit the eyes of cricketing aficionados during his marathon, record-breaking Test innings last weekend against England at The Oval. Far from flawless, but decisively astute and disciplined, Amla defended religiously. He flayed weak deliveries with indelible accord, and in between peppering the offside with deft touches, he took time as well to score all around the wicket.
The broken inside edges, and gawky, playground, squared-up French cricket defence apart, Amla’s innings was an illustration of purposeful defence-offence that took the shine off the much vaunted English pace attack and started a chorus of excited whispers just as he did as a youngster all those years ago.
Despite a phenomenal record in both Test match and ODI cricket, commentators endlessly compared his new back lift to his exaggerated shimmy of the 2004/5 season when steep Steve Harmison and Andrew Caddick bounced him back to the doldrums of domestic cricket.
But the sheer expanse of this particular feat, the number of records he broke, a mammoth 311 not out, his latest performance was not a trick pulled luckily from the trunk of a London cab. We ought to have seen it coming.
If doubts over his performances against England following his ill-fated series eight years ago were up for discussion, then so too his record since that series speaks volumes as well. In subsequent series against the Poms he has averaged 45.8 and 44.4, notching up two centuries along the way. But the bigger hint of greatness comes on closer inspection: In his last 45 Tests, he has averaged 60.61 with 14 centuries and 18 fifties.
After batting for 13 hours, helping his captain choreograph a memorable 100th Test, Amla walked into the history books with a rather polite vengeance. With a Test career average that tips over 50 at 50.26, Amla has become the pivot for the rest of South Africa’s Test line-up. Not forgetting his exploits in the ODI format – Amla bats at an average of 56.49 with a crucial strike rate of 91.43, making him among the finest at the top of the order for any team.
The plaudits are now innumerable, but the journey has not been easy.
Even as a rookie in the domestic setup and captain of the under-19 national team - his footwork was sublime, the flourish of his wrists would elicit a painful envy and he seemed, like all great players, to possess that little bit extra to distinguish him from the average Mohamed or Mahmoud strutting around Mayfair.
The ‘new’ Amla is able to leave deliveries at will, he sticks vehemently to his strengths much like India’s Rahul Dravid used to and crucially he’s able to contain the urge to play shots outside his natural wagon wheel.
This of course was not always the case. Amla did not always possess the same powers of concentration as he does now and crucially as well, his shot selection was not as refined as it is today.
Few however will remember that he relinquished his domestic captaincy to focus on his batting in a bid to get back into the national team. Others conveniently forget the spectre of ‘quota’ that clung mercilessly to his every walk to the wicket. Still others forget that on his return to the Test team in a series against New Zealand in 2006, he was slotted in at number three. At the time it was a daunting challenge, even a little unfair. He had only just made his way back into the team, he seemed to have been handed a poisoned chalice but Amla has somehow, defied all expectations and made the position his own.
But it didn’t happen overnight. Even after scoring a patient century on his return to Test cricket against the Kiwis, it took another 12 Tests – 19 months of continued insecurity – before he notched up consecutive centuries that ultimately made him a mainstay in the Test setup.
Since 2008, he has scored 12 centuries, making him statistically South Africa’s best number three batsman ever. It gets better. In the specialist position, Amla has a better average than Ricky Ponting and Rahul Dravid, and is bettered only by Don Bradman and Kumar Sangakkara.
But his feats, awesome as they are, have never been just about his batting.
"Even if he remains indifferent to the limelight, Amla is singlehandedly bringing a veneration back to cricket. His behaviour is outstanding; his play is earnest, honest, artful, but significantly marked by a revolutionary discipline. He bats with an audacious sincerity that is difficult to unhinge. "
Even if he remains indifferent to the limelight, Amla is singlehandedly bringing a veneration back to cricket. His behaviour is outstanding; his play is earnest, honest, artful, but significantly marked by a revolutionary discipline. He bats with an audacious sincerity that is difficult to unhinge.
It’s impossible then to discount Amla’s attitude to life, driven by that enigmatic source: religion.
And it is this precise reconciliation with his cricket not being the end-all of life that will perhaps catapult him into one the greats of the modern era. He is not altogether removed from the clutter of the information age, he does have a Twitter account after all but it is Amla’s brazen rejection of the heady entitlement that marks modern sportsmen that makes him a formidable foe.
This might explain why he is not to be seen near big money IPL contracts, drum rolls and flasher girls. He knows that his skill and aptitude for a much-vaunted game is a mere gift and like his Herculean frame, it is merely a shell on loan in the pursuit of the pleasure of a higher power.
Although Amla’s physical appearance will elicit ‘random security checks’ at the best of airports, his charm slices through barriers just as well as extremists thrive off them. There is of course a danger that Amla’s deification in a society so far removed from his quietly brilliant exploits will make him an unfeasible role model. Yet, South Africans from across the “Great Wall of Race” have embraced him. It’s not just the Muslim folk who have enthralled in having one of their own take it to the Poms. Amla has a unique blanket appeal to South Africans. He was voted the South African fans’ cricketer of the year in June and then South Africa’s sports star of the year a month later.
His gentle belligerence has won him the unlikeliest of fans in the most unlikely of places.
In Kashmir, ravaged by conflict for decades, youngsters worshipping the silky pursuits of Shahid Afridi, bat as ‘Hashim Amla’ in their manic games in fields shaded by towering Chinar trees. In Durban’s Sahara Kingsmead stadium, grown white men spill beer and scream for Amla through the strap-on beards clinging to their cheeks. Not to be undone, Crux Bite magazine included Amla in the top-ten list of most popular bearded sportsman of all time, including David Beckham and Boris Becker.
All those years ago, as a harebrained youngster, I had a niggling feeling about this ‘Amla-chap’ when I watched in awe as he carved a nonchalant century against us that summer morning. We all knew he the most likely of all of us to make it to the big league, but no one could have guessed the comparisons to greatness he would one day solicit.
All views are author's own