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The first sighting of Hashim Amla in international cricket was bizarre. He crouched like Quasimodo at the crease, shuffling about nervouslyas if waiting for a job interview and the bat came down in a parabola from somewhere in the region of point.
All this was executed with a grand, flowing beard somewhat squashed under his helmet.
He had already played one unsuccessful Test match by the time England met him in 2004, where he made 36 runs in four innings.
Despite four centuries in the South African domestic season, there was a suspicion he was part of the quota system to ensure the team partly represented the ethnic composition of his country.
Sympathy was tinged with unkind laughter – but there is no laughing now.
Amla, still with the same method, has become one of the world’s leading batsmen in all forms of the game.
Perhaps it is his slight unorthodoxy, allied to vast powers of concentration, that has fooled bowlers.
“I was fortunate in that it took me some time,” said Amla ahead of the Test series beginning at The Oval next Thursday. “Either you find your feet quickly or you fail and keep coming back.
“I don’t think much has changed for me as a batsman, but experience has added to the cricketer I am. This has been valuable in developing my game.”
After losing that series eight years ago against England, which might have finished some players, he waited more than a year until his next Test. He did not miss the opportunity, making 149 against New Zealand in Cape Town and becoming an ever-present in South Africa’s middle order.
Amla is a thinking man’s cricketer, never giving too much away in conversation. Thus, his take on the series: “I think it will be good. We are well matched and have played good cricket over the last few years.
“Obviously, the top two teams are the most dangerous. Fortunately, we face serious bowlers in our net sessions, so we will be prepared in that respect. We’ll enjoy the challenge.”
Amla is remembered by English followers for his fighting innings at Lord’s on the last tour when South Africa were forced to follow on. He made one of three centuries by the South African top order, 104 from 242 balls, on a pitch which got flatter.
His finest hour as a batsman was in India, in 2010. He followed 253 not out in Nagpur, where South Africa won by an innings and six runs, with 114 and 123 not out in an innings defeat in Kolkata a week later, a remarkable run of scores taking his average for the series to 490.
It was high praise when it was suggested he was the side’s new Jacques Kallis.
However, two aspects set him apart from Kallis. He was the first South African of Indian descent to play for the Test team, and he has the tactical acumen and leadership skills to be captain.
South Africa have come a long way since re-entering mainstream sport in the early 1990s after being boycotted for two decades thanks to apartheid. They still need desperately to produce more non-white cricketers but the quota system whereby non-white players were given an official leg-up into teams has been at least partially replaced by meritocracy.
Amla would not have played for South Africa until 20 years ago, and he is completely relaxed about the system, his religion and leadership of the team.
A captain of South Africa’s Under-19s, he has led the one-day team three times in the absence of AB de Villiers.
“I try to contribute as vice-captain,” he said. “I give advice as a player and share my thoughts. I didn’t have time to get used to it when I did it when AB was injured. Captaincy is something you need to get used to.
“I would prefer not being captain, so I don’t have any aspirations.”
He doesn’t see anything remarkable in the possibility of a Muslim captaining South Africa. Maybe it really is a sign of their rapid development. Asked of its significance he said: “Our country is multicultural and if you’re good enough to captain your country, then so be it. To play for your country is honour enough.”
Amla believes South Africa will have to play tough cricket to topple England on home soil.
“Any player can swing a game. We must ensure everything falls into place.” – The Independent