Azad Essa on Hashim Amla: A quiet hero
The first time I saw South Africa’s Hashim Amla walk to the crease, I was a sleepy-eyed 16-year-old, standing at square-leg, sniffling and sneezing under the haze of early summer dew.
Walking in at the fall of an early wicket, Amla arrived at the crease amidst a wave of awed whispers. He was the kid who had just been appointed captain of his high school. This was serious business. This was Durban High School after all, the alma mater of the likes of Barry Richards and Lance Klusener – not an itsy bitsy fantasy league in a trailer park school.
But I couldn’t have been less bothered. I continued slouching and picked at my nose.
Facing up to our opening speedster – a wonderful bloke called Mark Shadwell (whom I might add, dismissed Graeme Smith and troubled Jacques Rudolf in other school encounters later that year), Amla took guard and offered a pristine back foot punch that ricocheted off his blade with the sweetest of thuds.
My indifference was thwarted in an instant.
I stood there, wide-eyed, gushing at the condescension in that opening stroke. Whereas the pull is a shot of defiance, and the flick through mid-wicket a shot of cruel cheekiness, the back foot cover drive is the ultimate domination of a fast bowler. Any fool can lean forward into an over-pitched delivery and push gently through the covers. To stand tall on your toes, and bargain with the rising ball like a kid would with his candy, and then offer it the full face of the blade is a slap in the face of any fast bowler. The symmetrical domination of bat over ball is what German engineering is to precise.
Suffice to say I stopped picking at my nose.
Some thirteen years on, it’s precisely Amla’s belligerent back foot drives and pernicious punches through the off-side that lit the eyes of cricketing aficionados during his marathon, record-breaking Test innings last weekend against England at The Oval. Far from flawless, but decisively astute and disciplined, Amla defended religiously. He flayed weak deliveries with indelible accord, and in between peppering the offside with deft touches, he took time as well to score all around the wicket.
The broken inside edges, and gawky, playground, squared-up French cricket defence apart, Amla’s innings was an illustration of purposeful defence-offence that took the shine off the much vaunted English pace attack and started a chorus of excited whispers just as he did as a youngster all those years ago.
Despite a phenomenal record in both Test match and ODI cricket, commentators endlessly compared his new back lift to his exaggerated shimmy of the 2004/5 season when steep Steve Harmison and Andrew Caddick bounced him back to the doldrums of domestic cricket.
But the sheer expanse of this particular feat, the number of records he broke, a mammoth 311 not out, his latest performance was not a trick pulled luckily from the trunk of a London cab. We ought to have seen it coming.
If doubts over his performances against England following his ill-fated series eight years ago were up for discussion, then so too his record since that series speaks volumes as well. In subsequent series against the Poms he has averaged 45.8 and 44.4, notching up two centuries along the way. But the bigger hint of greatness comes on closer inspection: In his last 45 Tests, he has averaged 60.61 with 14 centuries and 18 fifties.
After batting for 13 hours, helping his captain choreograph a memorable 100th Test, Amla walked into the history books with a rather polite vengeance. With a Test career average that tips over 50 at 50.26, Amla has become the pivot for the rest of South Africa’s Test line-up. Not forgetting his exploits in the ODI format – Amla bats at an average of 56.49 with a crucial strike rate of 91.43, making him among the finest at the top of the order for any team.
The plaudits are now innumerable, but the journey has not been easy.
Azad’s latest book, The Moslems Are Coming, is a series of adapted writings from his award-winning Accidental Academic Thought Leader blog, tackling race and religion head-on, giving fresh insight into the Israel-Palestine conflict, casting new light on old sterotypes, venting the frustrations and fears of the next generation – and ultimately offering us all hope for the future.
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