Religiously piling up the runs

At 29, Hashim Amla is looking ahead to more years of fabulous runs and a berth in the pantheon of the batting greats. Over to K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

History and aesthetics follow Hashim Amla’s every step. His forefathers from India’s Surat, sailed towards the Cape of Good Hope. Ironically in the then racist South Africa, hope lost its way. Amla grew up in the Apartheid years until Nelson Mandela purged the stigma in 1994.

That Amla may not have played for the Proteas if Apartheid had continued is a sobering truth that a few South African dailies have subtly hinted after his unbeaten 311 shimmered at the Oval. Amla became the first South African to strike a triple hundred in Tests and his Asian descent added to the ‘all is well’ theme that currently plays across the ‘Rainbow Nation.’

If South Africa’s segregated past provides the emotional backdrop to the Amla story, then his Indian blood propped up the tales of oriental grace.

The British, ever alert to poetry at the crease, right from the days of Ranjitsinhji to the relatively closer vintage of Mohammad Azharuddin, are now warming up to Amla’s ability to bruise bowlers with deft shots. Promptly, the press corps at London alluded to Zaheer Abbas and other Asian geniuses who seasoned their willows with magic.

Amla though is oblivious to the fuss. His Twitter tag offers a clue about the serenity that he radiates. “Trying to keep things real one day at a time,” the line says. A clear mind is Amla’s biggest ally while he wears his religion thickly on his sleeve and has a monkish zeal towards making runs and rescuing his team, much like what Rahul Dravid did at one-drop for India.

The Dravid-method of ‘tough runs’ and ‘few words’ are also imbued into Amla’s soul. Besides the artistry — if you have any doubts on this then ask his victims James Anderson and Graeme Swann — the South African has that rare ability in modern day Tests: batting for long hours.

His magnum-opus at the Oval lasted 790 minutes before Graeme Smith effected the declaration and eventually South Africa won by an innings and 12 runs.

The first Test, in which Amla proved to be the permanent counter-point to Smith and Jacques Kallis’ hundreds, dragged in comparisons with his team-mates and even Dravid over their respective yields after 60 Tests. Amla (4775) is ahead of Dravid (4733), Smith (4695), AB de Villiers (4155) and Kallis (3971) and the word ‘great’ is now shimmering in conversations about the man, who insisted that a sponsor’s beer logo has no place on his cricketing garments.

Religion has helped Amla stay grounded and during his epic tour of India in 2010 in which he racked up 490 runs, his wife Sumaiyah told a reporter: “God is doing it.” 2010 marked the arrival of Amla as the real-deal while he topped up more than 1000 runs each in Tests and ODIs. He may be among the globe’s premier batsmen now and may well feature in future debates about the best number-three slot batsman in the world that has Dravid and Ricky Ponting as the lodestones but Amla’s early days were all about strife.

Debuting against India in 2004 and failing subsequently against England, Amla’s technique was questioned by the likes of Barry Richards. In that gloom, Gary Kirsten showed the light. “Don’t worry about technique. Bradman picked his bat up towards gully. At this level, it is all about temperament,” Kirsten said. An eager Amla ironed out his flaws and marked his return with a 149 against New Zealand at Newlands in 2006.

The rest as the cliché goes is history. Much like Dravid, Amla’s constant reference-point through his career, the Protean also worked on his craft in ODIs and became intrinsic to the limited overs squad.

At 29, Amla is looking ahead to more years of fabulous runs and a berth in the pantheon of the batting greats. There are whispers about captaincy too and if that happens, history will again trail him as he would become the first Asian to lead South Africa. But for now, Amla would take it ‘one day at a time’ and make up for missing his Ramadan fasting, once he gets back to Durban. You cannot take runs and religion away from Amla!