March 31, 1983, saw the birth of one of the most graceful, yet destructive batsmen the world would come to embrace. Jaideep Vaidya takes a journey through the still unfinished, yet highly prolific career of the current No 1 batsman in the world — Hashim Amla.
Hashim Amla can reflect on the 30 years of his life that have gone by with some pride. He currently has a firm grip on the No 1 ranking in both, Test matches and One-Day Internationals (ODIs) — a feat managed by only one other cricketer in the world so far. Australia’s charismatic former captain Ricky Ponting may have recently bid adieu to the art of batsmanship, but rest assured that it’s in good hands with Amla.
The first ever Indian-origin South African international has spread over the cricket world like a rash ever since his breakout series against New Zealand in April 2006. Born in an affluent Indian family in the Natal province, Amla had seen his fair share of pre-apartheid South Africa in his childhood where his ethnicity was a matter of much debate. Cricket as a choice of career in an Indian household was also never to go down smoothly in his family, with relatives and friends churning out doctors and engineers by the minute. But having broken through that stereotype, the birth of the Rainbow Nation in the nineties confronted Amla with another.
The young Indian-Muslim quietly made his way through South Africa’s infamous quota system with performances that drew attention and admiration. Graduating from Durban High School, the alma mater of players of the calibre of Barry Richards and Lance Klusener, Amla finally rubbed shoulders with the white populace after playing all-Asian cricket thus far. He cruised through stints in the Kwa-Zulu Natal and South African U-19 teams with impressive centuries. He captained South Africa in the U-19 World Cup in 2002 and barged his way through to the senior national side, picked for his talent than ethnicity.
“Generally, I am against quotas,” he would tell the BBC later. “When I captained the Under-19 side, we had, I think, three Indians, one black, two coloured guys and six white guys. It was a fantastic team and everyone gelled perfectly. Future teams must be picked on merit.”
Amla’s debut series in late 2004 wasn’t the fairytale he would have liked. He scored 24 and two at the Eden Gardens and could add just 36 runs in the following two Tests against England. Debates over the ramifications of the quota system were inevitable and Amla was immediately dropped from the squad with critics convinced that it was his ethnicity that was the culprit, than a faulty technique. Amla, however, rose above the smokescreen of conformity and went back to the drawing board. A crouching stance with the bat sticking out towards point and chest square-on was done away with as Amla freed his body and righted the angles.
When he came out to bat at Cape Town against the Kiwis in April 2006 after being given a second chance, the Amla of 12 months ago was an unrecognisable doppelganger as he elegantly pummelled Stephen Fleming’s men all over Newlands for 149 runs. Almost all of his 20 boundaries came in the cover region; Amla waited for the half-volleys and short-pitched deliveries outside off and punished the bowler for the crime without making it look like any effort at all. The wicket may have been a batting paradise, with three other batsmen scoring hundreds, but perhaps that’s what Amla needed to break the shackles.
Like good wine, Amla only got better with time. In early 2008, he scored his first century away from home — a glorious, grinding 159 off 262 balls in the sweltering heat of Chennai.
Two years later, he was back to torment India, scoring a masterpiece unbeaten 253 at Nagpur that helped the Proteas win by an innings and six runs. In the second Test at Eden Gardens, Amla was the mainstay in both South African innings (114 and 123 not out), but could not prevent an innings defeat for his side.
In 2012, Amla scripted an unprecedented magnum opus 311 not out at The Oval that set the tone for the series and helped South Africa knock England off their perch in the ICC Test Rankings.
In the winter, or summer, depending on which hemisphere you’re in, of that same year, Amla spanked Michael Clarke’s Australia for 104 at Brisbane and a match-winning 196 at Perth, as South Africa won a series Down Under for a second consecutive time.
This was, perhaps, Amla’s finest hour in a, so far, nine-year international career as he rose to No 1 in the Test rankings. If the aforementioned feats have created an impression that he is solely a Test player, Amla’s ODI strike-rate nestles in the nineties, he was the fastest batsman to notch up 3,000 runs in ODIs and he is also currently the top-ranked player in the format.
Hashim Amla is the first name on the sheet after the captain in all three formats of the game for the Proteas, which still does not speak enough of his value to any side he is in. He is South Africa’s utility player; he may not be as captivating to watch as a Jacques Kallis or boast of the same energy and flamboyance of an AB de Villiers, but Amla is the industrious and majestic workhorse of the South African team that forms its backbone.
Watching an Amla epic — with his otherwise flowing beard cramped under the helmet strap, his swift backlift and trademark twirl of the bat gracefully flowing into an equally effective front- and backfoot cover drive, his late cuts and dabs to third man, and his deft controlled flick of the wrists — is like a day in Candyland for the connoisseur of the game. It is thus unfortunate that his devout religious appearance evokes an image unbecoming of his serene character. In a highly stereotype-driven world that most of us live in, Dean Jones is, in most likelihood, not the first man to have thought of a terrorist looking at Amla. While Jones’s connotation does not warrant further discussion, perhaps the Australian was right if you look at it in the sense of the destruction Amla causes with his weapon of choice. Amla’s regular obliteration of the best of bowling attacks with his blade is perhaps no less lethal to those bearing the brunt.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber )