Hashim Amla is not the kind of person who likes to stand out ... reserved, understated and seemingly a touch withdrawn, he comes across as the archetypal silent man.
Yet, beneath the steely façade is a determination and passion to excel – a burning intensity that has carried him to the very pinnacle of the game he has devoted his life to.
Those who know him say he plays football with the same fervency as the next man – and he loves to win. Indeed, he is willing to do just about anything it takes to achieve victory.
It’s not surprising that the man dubbed “the bearded wonder” possesses such a determination to succeed. You don’t get to 300 runs in an innings (a feat unmatched by any of his countrymen) or a Test average of 51 without the right mental stuff.
Fastest to 3 000 runs
His magnificent triple century (311 not out) came against England in 2012. Also in 2012, in the 57th innings of his one-day international career, Amla became the fastest batsman to score 3 000 ODI runs, requiring 12 innings fewer than the great Sir Vivian Richards.
The following year he became the fastest batsman to score 4 000 ODI runs, requiring eight innings fewer than Richards.
In 2013 Amla became the first batsman since Australia’s Ricky Ponting to head both Test and ODI rankings at the same time, and later that year he was named as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year.
As a cricketer, a person and a captain, he remains untainted by controversy of any kind – humble, measured and quietly resolute.
Devoutly Muslim, Amla has not escaped the cruel barbs of prejudice. During a Test match between South Africa and Sri Lanka on 7 August 2006, Australian commentator Dean Jones referred to him as a “terrorist” after he had taken a catch, mistakenly assuming that the mic was off during a commercial break. “The terrorist gets another wicket,” remarked Jones, a remark that was aired around the world, including South Africa.
South Africans were outraged, as were many other viewers across the globe, not to mention fellow commentators and cricketers. Shortly afterward, Jones was fired and reports said he later apologised to Amla, saying his comments were “never supposed to be heard over the air”. Amla graciously accepted the apology, which is typical of the man.
Wristy leg-side flicks
An elegant strokeplayer, Amla is the first South African of Indian descent to reach the national squad (his grandparents migrated from Gujarat). Famous for his wristy leg-side flicks and immaculate cover drives, he has an almost omnipotent presence at the crease that oozes off his bat. A quiet man, there is no doubting Amla’s immense hunger for runs.
He reeled off four centuries in his first eight innings of the 2004-05 season, after being appointed captain of the Dolphins (formerly Natal) at the tender age of 21, and it was against this backdrop that he was selected for the national squad.
As a devout Muslim, Amla has had to deal with the tricky issue of the Proteas’ sponsorship by beer giant, SAB. He requested that logos promoting alcohol be removed from his playing gear – in effect asking a stodgy cricket establishment that had existed for more than a century to make a major concession. They complied.
Amla’s appointment as national captain is not his first experience at the helm. He captained South Africa at the 2002 Under-19 World Cup, and after starring for the A team, made his Test debut against India in 2004-05.
Fortunately for South African cricket, his unique talent was spotted early in his career, nurtured and eventually rewarded at the highest level.
At Essex, where he played county cricket, he earned the nickname “WG” because of his resemblance to the great WG Grace. He is known among his teammates as a great thinker and reader – traits not normally associated with cricketers (no disrespect intended).
He has been voted South Africa’s most popular sportsman and is a firm favourite among fans across the land. Few would deny he is one of the best batsmen of the modern era.
This highly gifted batsman has had to contend with criticisms that he could not excel in the shorter, one-day version of the game – and he dealt with them in the only way he knows how: with his bat. He has held the position of number-one ranked batsmen in the 50-over format and scored five centuries in 2010 alone. Can’t play one-day cricket? Who says so?
Referring to his record-breaking triple century, South Africa’s highly likeable captain was once quoted as saying, “I have a firm belief that everyone who has played a part in my career has a share in whatever success I had. If we could divide the 300 runs up, they would all get a piece”.
This favourite son of South African cricket – notice all the ‘Amla beards’ in the crowds – hasn’t always had it as good as he does today. When he first came onto the scene in the South African national setup, many questions were asked about his ability, and he had to deal with being dropped from the side after failing to impress at the start of his career. This was put down to his poor technique. While he had managed to get away with it at provincial level, international bowlers quickly found him out.
An extravagant backswing
For one thing, he had a very extravagant ‘backswing’ – with his bat pointing in the direction of point before the delivery. Without going into the coaching manual, one could quickly tell that this was one of the main reasons he struggled initially at international level.
Like all great cricketers, Amla worked hard on his deficiencies as a batsman It was a time in his career that is often forgotten today, overshadowed, as it is, by so much brilliance and so much success as an international batsman of the highest quality.
It would probably not be stretching it to say that he is one of the greatest South African cricketers of all time. His latest challenge, however, will be one of his biggest tests.
South Africa is coming off the back of one of the best periods in its cricketing history. The entire team, including Amla, contributed massively to this, but the question now needs to be asked: can the bearded wonder lead a new generation to the same heights?
He has to fill the big boots of Graeme Smith – South Africa’s most successful captain – and many of the players who will play under him have become accustomed to the big, brawly, confident Captain Courageous.
Unlike Amla, Smith was never one to shy away from the media: he defended the team, took responsibility for poor performances and, more importantly, played many ‘captain’s innings’ along the way.
His own serene way
No two captains are the same, of course, and Amla will no doubt go about the business of leading South Africa in his own serene way.
South African cricket is in something of a rebuilding phase. Several great players have called an end to their careers in recent years, and their replacements need to be found.
Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and, of course, Smith will all be remembered as South African greats, but their time is up. Amla’s you could say, has just arrived.
One of his tasks will be to usher in new players to fill the huge voids left in the team. It is hard to imagine a more capable leader to do this. The bearded one’s character, universal respect and standout brilliance with the bat stand South African cricket in good stead.
Leadership joined this masterful South African batsman and captain at the crease, so to speak, and bowled him a few overs:
What was your immediate reaction to your appointment as captain?
I had only found out about half an hour before the announcement so it was a little bit of a surprise, but also I was humbled that I had been given this privilege.
What does being captain of your country’s national cricket team mean to you?
Being a captain means you are in a position to make a positive impact within the team and wherever else possible. That’s pretty much what my aspiration is.
Describe what it feels like to represent South Africa at this level of sport. It must bring with it enormous feelings of pride, and patriotism?
It is a great feeling to be representing your country in anything, and for it to be a career and enjoyable, too, testing your skills and competing at the highest level is something I am grateful for.
What are the factors that set South Africa apart from other countries in terms of being a winning nation? What is it that enables a country as relatively small as ours to box so far above its weight in cricket, rugby and other sports?
SA is a proud sporting nation with high expectations and I think that helps keep people aspiring to be better.
What, for you, is special about being a South African?
As a South African, if you know even a little bit about the country’s history, then it should empower you to be positive and optimistic about the future. At the same time, it should also empower you to empathise with others in difficult circumstances, in this country and around the world.
Tell us a bit about your past. When did you first start playing cricket, and what were the biggest challenges you faced in terms of getting to the top in the game?
Like most youngsters, I started around 6 years old. I have an older brother who had also played first-class cricket so we always played together while growing up. One of the biggest challenges is understanding how international sport works: the skills required to perform, the dynamics in an international team environment, public praise and scrutiny, to name just a few.
Much has been said about the fact that you are the first ‘person of colour’ to captain South Africa. How do you feel about this? Is it a factor for you?
It is not a factor. I am not the first ‘person of colour’ anyway.
Who have been your mentors – in cricket, and in a broader sense?
My parents and a few cricket coaches.
Who are the batsmen you most admire over the past 50 years or so? Who, in your view, are the three or four greatest batsmen of all time?
It’s tough to name three or four all-time greats because I have never seen most, but I guess (Donald) Bradman would have to be number one. However, the guys I admired most were Brian Lara and Steve Waugh.
What ethos do you plan to bring to the Proteas under your captaincy? What sort of culture would you like to see developing in the squad?
The team already has a strong, healthy culture, so it is basically to continue with that and maybe tweak a bit here and there. But that will come with time, naturally.