The making of Hashim Amla
Hashim Amla once told me that his blood was green. Although it chimed with the times (there was a green-flavoured energy drink available in those days) for him it was a moment of candour. He wasn’t at his best revealing himself through words, and there was a boyish charm to his admission.
At the crease, Amla was a flamboyant talker. He had an endless monologue in the run-gathering region between mid-on and mid-wicket; he conversed amiably with fielders square on the off-side, beating them for fun off both the front and the back foot.
And he could hold an argument, often doing so for hours on end, as he did with England at the Oval in July 2012 when he scored his record 311 in over 13 hours.
The younger of two cricket-playing brothers, Amla came from a place few other post-re-admission cricketers came from – the sultry sugar-cane lands of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Young Indian cricketers were accepted in his province, but, further afield, he was greeted with slight suspicion.
The late Hylton Ackerman was head of the then Plascon National Academy when Amla arrived fresh out of school and Ackerman gave him a harder time than he deserved. There were others easier to understand in Amla’s intake, like the affable Ryan McLaren and the chirpy Davy Jacobs, and he was introverted and not athletic.
Still, there was a wristy extravagance. And although he probably needed to do just that little bit more to demonstrate he belonged, he also played the game with a sub-continental elan. Ackerman realised that here was a young player worth cultivating.
Having his bona fides scrutinised early served Amla well. Over time, he outlasted all of his Academy intake. He had immaculate timing, strong wrists, a cold eye for gaps in the field. Soon his run-gathering became so vast for KwaZulu-Natal that he was levered into the national side.
By quirk of fate for a player of Indian descent, his debut was at Eden Gardens. Back home a month later, he played two Tests against the England side who went on to win the 2005 Ashes.
It wasn’t a happy time. The Proteas’ were coached by the maverick Ray Jennings and there was needle between him and his young captain, Graeme Smith. Under the forensic glare of the television cameras and the journalists, Amla’s back-lift (an extravagant loop over gully before straightening) was dissected, some thought unfairly.
After the Kolkata Test and two at home to England he was dropped, with Jennings in no mood for patience as he chased the series. Amla went away, broke his technique down and re-assembled it as he awaited his next chance.
He didn’t play for South Africa again until April of the following year – 15 months in the wilderness – and made his recall count with a century against New Zealand at Newlands. After his 149 on a benign pitch in a high-scoring draw against Stephen Fleming’s men, he became a permanent fixture. More centuries against the Kiwis and a confidence-boosting, seven-hour vigil in Chennai followed. The tide of doubt receded.
After Jennings came Mickey Arthur, who worked well with Smith, and the two welded together the plates of a side. Amla became a lynchpin at three, and with Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers slotting in at four and five.
Two young tyros from the Titans – Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel – took the new ball and within a season or two Amla was part of a solidly consistent, self-sustaining side. He had tightened up his game without sacrificing himself and his flair. His secret was that his head remained still and he moved late, trusting his hands and instincts to do the rest.
For someone as apparently mild-mannered as he was, he was surprisingly difficult to intimidate. It helped that he was now a part of a settled, winning side.
This was 10 years ago, when the new South Africa could still be talked about without cynicism or hopelessness, and he added something unique to the mix. With a touch of spice Amla broadened the definition of what a South African side could be. They were better for it, better for the clash of registers and religions.
With a bat as broad as a bluegum, there followed seasons of scandalous consistency, so much so that the public tended to take his contributions thoroughly for granted. He scored over a thousand Test runs for the first time in 2008 and did it again 2010, as he became one of the most revered batsmen in the world.
Here was the softly-spoken Muslim boy from KwaZulu-Natal continuing a tradition in one of South Africa’s most famous cricket provinces, a province that had produced Dudley Nourse, Mike Procter, Barry Richards, Robin Smith. In Amla they had their first hero of colour.
His exploits weren’t confined to Tests. He went past ODI markers like a galloping horse, quickest to 2000 ODI runs, 3000, 4000, 5000. For a player who generally eschewed the pull and was never a prolific sweeper, Amla was remarkable for his run-gathering speed and the greed with which he went about it. He seemed permanently unflappable, seldom stressed.
Yet appearances can be deceptive. Amla allowed himself to be cajoled into accepting the Proteas captaincy without ever wanting it and, like the players he grew to maturity around, his World Cup record fell significantly short of his record as a whole.
He soldiered on, watching players he debuted within a Test or two of, like Steyn and De Villiers, fall out of love with the game and succumb to injury. He remained steadfast, a lone reminder of the glory days, until last season perhaps, when his powers palpably dwindled.
His declining sight must have been traumatic. He held on, bravely, understandably, and perhaps a little foolishly, but when Jofra Archer hit him on the helmet at the Oval in the opening game of this year’s World Cup, what everyone had sensed for months was confirmed.
It was the end of the road for a player whose blood was always green.