Hashim Amla (left) takes on the reins of captain of the most consistent Test side in recent times © Getty Images
Hashim Amla (left) takes on the reins of captain of the most consistent Test side in recent times © Getty Images

 

By Colin Bryden

 

Johannesburg: June 3, 2014

 

Hashim Amla, who was appointed as South Africa‘s new Test captain on Tuesday, has had an uneasy relationship with leadership roles in cricket. Amla, 31, will have a tough captaincy baptism when he leads the side on a two-Test tour of Sri Lanka next month. South Africa lost both Tests on their previous tour of Sri Lanka in 2006. They have not been beaten in an away series since then. The 2006 tour was notable for the absence of long-serving captain, Graeme Smith, who was injured. Ashwell Prince had led South Africa in the two Tests there.

 

The quiet-spoken Amla has the considerable task of taking over from Smith, who led South Africa in a world record 109 Tests, stamping his strong personality on a team which was ranked No 1 in Test cricket when he announced his retirement in March this year. An annual review of the rankings has seen South Africa slip to No 2 behind Australia and it may prove difficult for the Proteas to regain the summit after a season during which Smith and long-term stalwart Jacques Kallis quit the Test arena.

 

Amla was a schoolboy prodigy at Durban High School, whose old boys include former Test captain Trevor Goddard and batting legend Barry Richards. He played for South African Schools in 2000 and toured New Zealand as a 17-year-old with the South African Under-19 team in 2000/01, emerging as the side’s leading batsman despite being one of the youngest players in the side. A year later he returned to New Zealand as captain at the Under-19 World Cup and led South Africa to the final, where they were beaten by Australia.

 

Amla quickly made a name for himself at First-Class level and at the age of 21 was selected for South Africa’s tour of India in November 2004, making his Test debut and scoring 24 and 2 in the second Test at Kolkata. He played in two home Tests against England in the same season but was dropped after struggling against the England pace bowlers. A looping backlift was widely criticised and there were doubts about whether his talent could overcome his technical deficiencies.

 

Still only 21, he had been appointed captain of the KwaZulu-Natal Dolphins franchise and led the side to the final of the domestic first-class competition, scoring 249 in the drawn final against the Eagles in Bloemfontein. But he gave up the captaincy after one season in order to concentrate on his batting in an attempt to win back his Test place.

 

Having made what he described as a relatively minor adjustment to his backlift, Amla returned to the Test team in April 2006 and hit 149 against New Zealand in Cape Town. He has been a fixture in the side since then and has built up an impressive Test record, scoring 6214 runs at an average of 51.35, most of them scored in the key number three position. His 21 Test centuries include a South African record 311 not out against England at the Oval in 2012 and 253 not out against India in Nagpur in 2009/10. He averages above 50 against Australia, England and India, arguably South Africa’s toughest opponents during his career.

 

Amla was again elevated to a leadership role when he was named vice-captain of the South African One-Day International (ODI) and Twenty20 international teams following the appointment of Gary Kirsten as coach in 2011. He was thrust into the captaincy almost immediately when De Villiers was injured and he led South Africa in two T20I and ODIs against Australia, sharing the first series and losing the one-dayers 2-1.His own form was mediocre and he admitted he was happy to hand the captaincy back to de Villiers.

 

Although he remained the official vice-captain, Amla turned down the captaincy when de Villiers was suspended because of a slow over rate in the first match of a series against New Zealand early last year. Selection convener Andrew Hudson said Amla told the selectors he wanted to concentrate on his batting. Faf du Plessis took over as captain while De Villiers was absent and Amla gave up the vice-captaincy.

 

It was therefore a surprise when it was revealed that Amla had informed the selectors that he was available to be Test captain. Until then, De Villiers was favourite for the role despite a patchy record as one-day captain. de Villiers will be vice-captain of the Test team. As a Muslim of Indian origin, Amla is the first “player of colour” to be appointed formally as captain and in race-conscious South Africa it will be hailed as a sign that cricket is serious about racial transformation. Prince had only led South Africa as a makeshift captain in those Tests.

 

Amla’s cricket record has earned him enough respect to overcome any suggestions of tokenism – but he will need to prove that he can commit fully to the captaincy without old anxieties about his own batting resurfacing.