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Anyone can have his or her minute of fame or notoriety, and if we’ve learnt anything about the modern world, talent is definitely not required. Hashim Amla, however, is something different.
Here are two examples, taken two years apart, that illustrate what kind of man he is.
The first took place shortly after he went up on the famous Lord’s honours board in 2008 for scoring a century at the “home of cricket”. Asked how he felt about it, Amla told me: “I didn’t feel any sense of awe about going to Lord’s. Scoring my first century at my home ground of Kingsmead was a great thing for me; that was real prestige! For me, the home of cricket has always been in Durban.”
The second example took place in Dubai on Monday after he had scored his 11th Test century in the first Test against Pakistan. His innings of 118 not out made him the third highest Test run-scorer this calendar year.
At the press conference after the day’s play, the softly-spoken Protea was asked whether he hoped to overtake Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag – the men ahead of him – in the home series against India next month.
Amla replied: “Really, whether I overtake them or not makes no real difference to me. For me, the key is to try and perform in each game. Obviously India is a big series at home, but at the moment we’re here and all our focus is on these games.”
Amla is devoutly religious, and refuses to wear the South African Breweries sponsorship badge on his cricket shirt because it conflicts with his Islamic beliefs. Religion has generally not played much of a role in his career, beyond the spiritual and mental sustenance that it gives him, with the exception of an incident that took place in August 2006 in Sri Lanka.
That was the occasion when he became the object of the infamous off-air-that-wasn’t-off-air “terrorist” jibe by Australian commentator Dean Jones during a Test match.
Two years afterwards, Amla was asked whether he had consigned that episode to the past. “It would be wrong to say that I was hugely upset,” he said calmly. “In fact, when Jones apologised to me I put it completely behind me. I think important lessons were learned from it, particularly the dangers of stereotyping people for whatever reason. I think everyone can learn lessons from that. In South Africa, of course, because of apartheid, people are more sensitive to that kind of thing. And it’s right that they are.”
Is Amla too good to be true? Well, no. He has an infectious sense of humour, a delightful laugh and even has human frailties! A year ago, for example, he received a one-match ban for expressing dissent against an umpire’s decision while captaining South Africa ‘A’ in a limited-overs tour match against England in Potchefstroom.
It would be putting it fairly mildly to say that Amla is not a great self-publicist and certainly does not pay court to the local and international media. Sometimes it’s hard to pin him down for an interview unless it’s strictly about cricket within a structured media environment.
I asked him why. “Look, the media notice things, good and bad and of course they write them up. I’m always hesitant to talk too much about things when they’re going well, because you know that cricket is a game of swings and roundabouts. You’re either going up or down. In that sense it keeps you honest all the time.”
As an example, Amla pointed out how the media were currently calling for Aussie batsman Michael Hussey’s head after calling him “Mr Cricket” for years. It also happened to him after his hesitant start in Test cricket in 2004/5 when he was dropped after only scoring 62 runs in his first six innings at an average of 10.
Such was his determination to get back into the team that he gave up the captaincy of the Dolphins after just one season in order to focus exclusively on his batting. It was a decision that paid huge dividends.
Amla began his career as very much a first-class provincial batsman and a Test rather than ODI player. Early notices mentioned his powers of concentration as being a key contributor to his success. That hasn’t changed, and he remains a formidable Test batsmen as his remarkable exploits in India earlier this year attest. But what has startled the cricketing world this year has been his extraordinary rise up the ODI batting rankings from nowhere in 2008 to No1 today.
In his 15 innings this year, Amla has scored 1 058 runs, including five centuries, at the sensational average of 75.57, the second highest average ever for an ODI calendar year. Amla gets a little restless when you ask him for the “secret” to his success. “If I got a penny for every time I’ve been asked that question I’d be a rich man,” he smiled at a recent press conference in Dubai.
He is always keen to emphasise that there’s no magic involved, no sudden or radical change in his technique, or anything else spectacular. Instead it’s been a process involving lots of hard work developing a wider range of shots and the gradual accumulation of experience gained by speaking to and batting with the likes of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis who have been at or near the top of world’s batting pile for years.
“A lot of it is about learning to trust my judgement,” he said, “and that’s a result of the experience I’ve accumulated.
“You learn to play a wider range of strokes, rotate the strike and other things. I’ve also learned since I began playing in ODIs that 50 overs is a long time.”
Once again he is modest to a degree when answering a question about how he hits the gaps in the field so consistently: “Things happen to you when you’re having a good trot. Thick edges find the gaps, sometimes you’re dropped like I was when I was in the 80s in the Test. When you’re struggling, those same edges find the fielder.”
He’s also becoming one of the world’s best short legs. His catch to dismiss England captain Andrew Strauss off the first ball of the Wanderers Test match last summer was one of the best you’ll ever see, as was his effort to dismiss Misbah-ul-Haq in the Pakistan first innings last weekend.
“I do a lot of reflex work with (fielding coach) Rob Walters,” he said.
“The harder you work, the better chance you give yourself to make those kind of catches.”
Because of his maturity and success, there has been increasing speculation about the possibility of Amla’s leadership potential when Graeme Smith quits the ODI captaincy at the end of the World Cup. For Amla, though, it’s not an issue. “I haven’t given it much thought,” he says simply. “I still want to contribute to the team as a batsman.”
Does he have a sense of life apart from cricket, or after it? “At the moment the priorities are family (he is recently married) and friends. In fact, spending time with my parents has taken on a bigger focus because cricket takes up so much of my time, so I feel the importance of seeing them as being all the greater,” he said.
He has begun studying – fitfully, he chuckles – for a degree in business administration, but seems confident that being an international cricket player will throw up options. “Something will come along.”
But, hopefully, not too soon. At the relatively young age of 27, we can hope to enjoy Amla at the top of his game for years to come. - The Star
Hashim Mahomed Amla
Born: March 31, 1983
Current age: 27 years 232 days
Place o f birth: Durban, KZN
Batting style : Right-hand bat
Bowling style: Right-arm medium, Right-arm off-break
Relation brother: AM Amla
Major teams: South Africa, Dolphins, Essex, KwaZulu-Natal