Hashim Amla, new South African Test captain. It has a nice ring to it, writes Lungani Zama.
Hashim Amla, new South African Test captain. It has a nice ring to it, particularly for those who like to put a political, religious or provincial spin on these things. It speaks of transformation, integration, representation and the manifestation of the rainbow nation ideal that the country continually strives for.
For the man in question, the Durban-born, Muslim-devoted, Cape Town-moonlighting Amla, all those happy coincidences that his ascension bring are secondary to what his new job title means in a pure cricket sense.
“I’ve heard a lot of people call me the first Indian, or the first Muslim to captain South Africa,” he acknowledged, in the aftermath of an entertaining yet emotional Cricket South Africa awards banquet this week.
“But, to be really honest, I would like to think that we’ve moved on from that mindset as a country.
“This is about cricket and it is as a South African cricketer, who grew up with the dream of playing for my country one day, that I am most proud to be the next South African Test captain.
“Yes, I understand that it comes with a lot of meaning for a lot of people, but I don’t look at things that way. If it’s best for the team, if the team want me to be their leader, then I am more than happy. And I think they are.”
Certainly, his teammates have been united and emphatic in their praise. So has the man on the street. Suddenly, The Bearded One has become The Chosen One.
There was a slight concern that the increased speculation over the three candidates may lead to animosity in the dressing-room, but AB de Villiers’s reaction to Amla’s promotion batted those away.
“I’m so happy for Hashim, so proud of him,” the new South African Cricketer of the Year beamed. “We’ve known each other and played against each other through the age groups for years, and I know he will be a great leader. He already was a leader in the team.
“It’s unique to have three captains, but it is definitely something we can make work and I know that all three of us will be fully behind the other. It is an exciting time for South African cricket.”
Cricket South Africa bid a sincere farewell to retired captain Graeme Smith during the awards dinner. The extended highlights reel of “Biff’s” reign served only to emphasise the magnitude of the role that Amla has embraced.
Smith, who cut a relaxed and jovial figure out of “uniform”, spent more than a decade fighting all sorts of battles on and off the field, for the good of his team.
Many observers have pointed to the increased public responsibilities that captaincy will place on Amla as a real concern, for someone supposedly reluctant to be in the spotlight.
Refreshingly, the new Proteas Test leader disagrees.
“I don’t see that side of it as a burden at all. I’m sure there will be days when you’ve been batting or fielding all day and you just want to sit in the change-room, but it’s just a part of the job.”
The ease with which he explained away those concerns suggests that there is much to be learnt about the new captain.
What’s more, he accepts that the perceived layers of his character will be removed as he grows into his role.
“I actually don’t know where this idea that I am uncomfortable in the media spotlight comes from. Whenever the management has a function or engagement that requires a player or two, I have never been one to shy away,” he said.
“I actually enjoy engaging with people, from all walks of life. But I guess because I am not on social media or out and about like others, it is perceived as a sign that I am shy or uncomfortable.
“It couldn’t be further from the truth,” he chuckled.
Amla said he was intrigued at the general perception that he had approached the board only belatedly, to announce his enthusiasm for the job. When the news broke, it had been weeks since he had voiced his enthusiasm.
“I laughed at the suggestion that it was a very sudden, spur-of-the-moment thing. It had been a while by the time the news actually came out.
“As a player you are always looking for challenges, and I think that captaining this team is firstly a great honour, but also a huge challenge. We don’t have an easy start, going to Sri Lanka, but I am really looking forward to it. We don’t have a great record there and the conditions are tough, but I believe it gives us a great opportunity to try a few, new things,” he said excitedly.
What “new things” means remains to be seen, but the addition of standout domestic performers like Dane Piedt, Kyle Abbott and Stiaan van Zyl to the Proteas squad show that the selectors accept that the team is moving in a new direction.
Sri Lanka on home soil is a different beast and Amla’s patience and instinct – tools that have served him well as a batsman – will be tested by conditions that will try to nullify his much-vaunted pace attack.
Amla is revered for his ability to play down his own, majestic achievements, while lavishing praise on others. But as Michael Clarke has proved, the best way for a captain to stamp his authority on a high-profile position is by the sheer weight of performance.
If Amla continues to churn out the runs, everything else will take care of itself. Even with Messrs Smith and Kallis confined to Test history, the South African Test team remains well stocked in experience and potential.
The likes of Dale Steyn and De Villiers are at the peak of their considerable powers and they will need to keep performing at those lofty standards while their equally brilliant captain beds into his new office.
As he would have quietly observed from his corner in the changeroom and in the few days since he was unveiled as the chosen one, leading the Test side is intriguing, exciting, infuriating, inspiring and ultimately, a unique challenge in world cricket.
Having been part of Smith’s all-conquering unit over the last six years, he will know that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. Indeed, there are those who will not be satisfied, even in victory.
“I’ve been in the job for a day, but it already feels like a year!,” he quipped on Wednesday night.
But deep down, he will know that the real job begins in earnest on July 16 only, when he strides out at the Galle International Stadium and attends his first coin toss as Hashim Amla, the new South African captain.
“I can’t wait,” he said simply, his eyes giving away the pleasure of a dream coming true.