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Hashim Amla’s appointment as South African captain is a momentous event

Hashim Amla is to take over as only the fifth regular captain of the side since their readmission — after Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Shaun Pollock and Graeme Smith © AFP
Hashim Amla is to take over as only the fifth regular captain of the side since their readmission — after Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Shaun Pollock and Graeme Smith © AFP

The cricketing merits and demerits of the appointment of Hashim Amla can be debated, but there is no doubt it is a momentous event in the history of South African cricket, writes Arunabha Sengupta.

The appointment of Hashim Amla as the South African Test captain is intriguing indeed.

No one can question the classy batsman’s credentials and experience, but it is fairly well known that till very recent times he had shown unusual reluctance to take on any responsibility other than with his willow. Additionally, of course, there is the rather curious situation of three captains in three different formats.

However, while one can debate the merits and demerits of handing the mantle to Amla, the bigger picture definitely points to a momentous landmark in the history of the game, especially in the context of South African cricket.

The Rainbow Nation has come a long way. A mere 22 years since their return to the international fold after two decades of isolation due to apartheid policies, the Proteas now have a non-white captain. Yes, Ashwell Prince has led in the past, but he had always been a stand-in skipper. Amla is to take over as only the fifth regular captain of the side since their readmission — after Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Shaun Pollock and Graeme Smith.

In these enlightened times, it may indeed seem the most natural course of events. Yet, from the point of view of cricket and history, it is at least comparablein significance, if not equivalent, to some singular milestones in the social timeline.

One can perhaps look askance if comparisons are made with Frank Worrell’s assumption of the West Indian captaincy, or in the non-cricketing domain Barack Obama’s swearing in as the President of the United States. But, if we look at the tumultuous history of the South African people, focus on the saga of racial atrocities that seeped big time into the cricket of the country, Amla’s appointment definitely strikes one as a major historical event.

The roots go as far back as 1891-92, when WW Read’s visiting English side played a Malay XVIII at Cape Town. Perhaps due to the sequence of events that unfolded, after that no international touring team ever played a coloured South African side until Derrick Robins took his private band of cricketers to the land in 1973.

During the Cape Town match, the last engagement of the tour, the local side was defeated by ten wickets, but Malaysian fast bowler Krom Hendricks impressed one and all by capturing four wickets for 50. When the Cape Colony Government forced the selectors to leave Hendricks out of the South African team to tour England in 1894, there was a lot of outrage.

Someone who did make it to the South African Test side was Charlie Llewellyn, a left-handed all-rounder of considerable skill. Over a career of 16 years, he played 15 Tests for South Africa, scored four half-centuries and captured 48 wickets at an average under 30. Originally a left-arm medium pacer, he learnt the art of the googly from Reggie Schwarz and developed a potent chinaman during the first decade of the twentieth century. Additionally, he was a superb fielder at mid-off.

However, Llewellyn was supposedly born out of wedlock to an English father and a black Saint Helenan mother. His skin was fair enough to pass as a white, and that opened the cricketing doors for him. But, there were reports that he was often mistreated because of his colour by his teammates. According to historian Rowland Bowen, “Llewellyn was tormented by his white fellow tourists (on the 1910-11 tour of Australia) to such an extent that he took refuge in the WCs and locked himself in”. He was much happier in England, where he played for Hampshire, represented Accrington in the Lancashire League and settled down after his playing days.

When the history of the discrimination faced by Llewellyn was published in The Cricketer in 1976, his daughter protested that he had been of pure British descent. Yet, there remains little doubt of Llewellyn being a forerunner of Basil D’Oliveira.

The phenomenally talented D’Oliveira had to play in the black South African team against Kenya and East Africa before migrating to England in 1960.

Things remained more or less same until Omar Henry made his South African debut in the third ‘Test’ between South Africa and the rebel Australians at Kingsmead in 1986. It was again Henry who made it to the actual Test team when he took field against the Indians in November 1993. Depending on the version we choose to believe, Henry became either the first coloured cricketer to play for South Africa or the first since Llewellyn.

Against the backdrop of this murky history, Amla being appointed regular captain of the Test side is nothing short of epochal. It is indeed a testimony to the winds of change that have mercifully spurred the once-stagnant sails of South African cricket.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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