Durban - Hashim Amla is, in the best sense, public property now as the wristy 31-year-old bestrides the world of cricket as one of its best batsmen and the Proteas’ new leader.
But there are those in KwaZulu-Natal with special, personal memories of a talented Tongaat kid’s cricketing development.
AK Khan is the former president of the KZN Cricket Union and father of Dolphins and Proteas’ cricketer Imraan Khan, who was a fellow pupil and teammate of Amla’s at DHS.
He recalls his time as a “taxi-driver”, along with Hashim’s dad Dr Mahomed Amla, as they ferried their sons from practice nets to cricket grounds around the province.
Khan pointed out the complications that arose for the two families as the fathers saw their sons edge towards careers as professional cricketers.
“We had serious reservations about letting the boys become pro cricketers,” Khan said. “In our community, education is a vital part of a young person’s life, leading to one of the traditional professions.
“A cricket career was seen as a risk. Things have changed since then, with more opportunities presenting themselves, but at the time it was a difficult situation.”
Khan noted that Amla was intelligent and level-headed, as well as being deeply religious from a very young age. Did his religious beliefs help him as a cricketer?
“Without doubt. They helped with his discipline, his attitude towards others and his desire to work hard for everything. In some ways he didn’t have a normal teenage life because of the way he worked at the game.”
Amla made his senior debut for the Dolphins against England in a tour match at Kingsmead in 1999/2000 while he was still captain of DHS. At 16 years and 247 days, he was the youngest to do so.
His school coach, Alan Norton (now vice-principal), remembers him well. Writing about him in the school magazine in 2000, Norton described him as “an astute captain who was not scared to speak his mind and do what was right for the team, and not the individual”.
For Norton, Amla’s ability as a batsman was one thing, but for him the key characteristic was his humility.
“It is his humble way that makes the real difference. He is an intelligent man, and his own man, and observes and listens before speaking. A rare quality these days!”
Speaking of Amla’s prospects as South Africa captain, Norton said: “As a Test captain he will have the patience that is necessary to be successful, and I think he will be forced to reveal more of who he is as he comes under the spotlight. He is also a very principled man, and a man of great integrity.”
One of his teammates at DHS was Durban-born England and Somerset batsman Nick Compton.
“When I was 15 I was in the nets with my dad, and I remember saying to him that Hashim would captain South Africa one day. It’s funny how I remember that moment so well.
“I looked up to Hash from a young age. It was at that time that he took off. He just flew and was hitting the ball like a man. The way he transitioned into senior cricket was easy for him because he matured so quickly.
“He’s an intelligent, humble person who has a clear strength within. He’s a top man. He was always destined for this. He’s a leader, and I hope he relishes it.”
Phil Russell was the Dolphins coach during Amla’s successful year as captain in 2004/5.
“During our selection meetings it was obvious Hashim had thought very deeply about the teams and conditions, and his analysis was always well considered and of good quality.”
For Russell, who predicted years ago that Amla would captain his country, it was easy to spot his quality as a batsman.
“You could see almost immediately that he was a class above everyone. Even as a schoolboy playing club cricket, he looked comfortable playing against men much older than him.”
That’s an opinion shared by the distinguished cricket historian Krish Reddy, who also saw him from a young age.
“My first impression was that he was just so assured. He had bags of time to play.”
As a Dolphins selector when Amla began his senior career, Reddy always had the sense that he never had a mentor or followed anyone because he always “knew where he was going and would work everything out for himself”.
“He understood the game and he couldn’t be bullied. He would offer that wonderful, unassuming smile and want to know why certain decisions had been taken. Hashim has always been a man who earns respect, he never demands it. He’s the kind of man who is never completely satisfied even if he’s done well. He always feels he has more to give.”
Former South Africa and Dolphins coach Graham Ford, who is currently coaching Surrey, once said of Amla: “Hashim is as close to the perfect professional as you can get. From a young age he has displayed a fantastic work ethic and real determination to constantly improve his game. Together with this, he has at all stages shown a unique humbleness and total respect for his fellow players and the game of cricket.”
Two years ago, Amla tweeted with approval this wise comment on captaincy, which may well be a portent for his future leadership style: “Weak people become more selfish with leadership, while the strong become more selfless with it.”
There is no question that the quiet, reflective Amla, while very different to the openly combative Graeme Smith, possesses the iron will, intelligence and strength of character to lead South Africa into the whitest heat of battle.