Amla: ‘Many ways to skin cat’

Hashim Amla (AFP Photo)
Hashim Amla (AFP Photo)

Johannesburg – Hashim Amla may be prepared to contemplate a switch from No 3, the slot he has served so extraordinarily well, to 4 in the batting order now that he has taken the Test captaincy reins of South Africa.

It was just one of the revelations he offered in an exclusive half-hour conversation with Sport24 a day after his announcement as Graeme Smith’s successor, and just ahead of the 2014 CSA Awards banquet here this week.

In the interview, Amla also reveals exactly when he came around to the idea that he could take charge, and insists that he doesn’t “bow down to peer pressure” after some suggestions his arm was twisted at boardroom level to take the job.

Nor is he too concerned that he is likely to signal a departure from relatively in-your-face captaincy of the SA Test side: “There are many ways to skin a cat.”

The 31-year-old also shares some thoughts on his first challenge in his new capacity: trying to earn a rare series win in Sri Lanka in July.

This is the interview ...

Somewhere high above us, I imagine a certain Hylton Ackerman, who was so excited about your potential many years ago, has a satisfied smile over your appointment as national Test captain ... he was an important early mentor to you when you led the SA under-19s in 2002 at the World Cup in New Zealand, wasn’t he?

Oh yes. In those days when you were a youngster coming into the international under-19 set-up, the kind of knowledge a guy like that imparted was quite amazing. We were all blown away. Now, all these years later, you can really see what he was seeing in a cricket match! We’d sit next to him and he’d call a play, just like that – I mean, he must have seen a million games. The knowledge and experience he shared was amazing, and fortunately he took a liking to me and the guys took a liking to him because he was so open with everyone.

Did you have further captaincy aspirations at that time?

I was quite fortunate because at under-15, school first team level, I captained most of the time ... the under-19 Natal team, and the South African U19s. So I think it was always in my system. Then I captained the Dolphins at around 21, so it was pretty normal (to lead) for a good while; didn’t seem like anything too much out of the ordinary. Then I stepped down as Dolphins level ... but you know, you don’t just switch off. You always want to contribute, whoever the captain is; as a cricketer you’re happy to share ...

Was there a particular moment, or day, when you finally thought: I’m ready to throw my cap into the ring for the national Test leadership? Did some individual suddenly give you an encouraging prod?

Well, the day that Graeme (Smith) called time on his captaincy (during the Cape Town Test against Australia last season) we were all pretty surprised in the team; I think most people were. A couple of the players had asked me, a day or so after we lost and then flew to Port Elizabeth for the first T20, whether I’d consider it. That kind of set the ball rolling. It put the seed in my mind and I started thinking a bit more. We were building up to the World T20 then, so I just let it brew a little bit. When I got back six weeks ago and the selectors were wondering what the possibilities were, I spoke to (convenor) Andrew Hudson and I said “Hudders, if the team would like it, if you would like it, and the powers that be would like it ... I’m available for consideration”. What happened was that somehow my (candidacy) became more widely known pretty late, which led some to believe I’d been ‘influenced’ to put my name in the hat.

So it was nothing like that ...

 It was absolutely nothing like that. In all honesty, Rob, I’m not the kind of guy who bows down to peer pressure anyway, for most things. I just felt comfortable. Besides, every day, with everything in life, we change our minds all the time, don’t we? Just with batting, for example, you instinctively want to score runs, but a guy bowls a good ball, you block it ... that’s a change of mind.

Even in the very short reaction time to your appointment thus far, I have sensed a trend of people who may even have been more partial to another candidate like AB de Villiers being magnanimous about your appointment. Have you been chuffed by the response from all constituencies?

Yes, it’s always great to start on that note, to feel the support of the people. To be honest, I’m not that naive about it ... I mean, international sport is quite a fickle thing. But having the start-out support of the players, the public, is very important. For me it was never a competitive thing: it was not about “why did AB get it”? or “why did Faf?”or “gee, I hope I get it” type of thing. It’s not about that. We’ve got enough competition out there; why do we need to create competition within our own ranks? I’m pretty sure the other guys see it like that. Whoever is captain, there’ll be 100 percent support for the guy, as long as the team moves forward. AB has the ODI captaincy, Faf the T20 ... but there’s no doubt in each instance that other senior guys add important value to the captain. The captain makes decisions, but the seniors add information: it is a collective effort in so many regards.

The Muslim community in South Africa includes some of the most passionate cricket enthusiasts imaginable ... have you picked up the joy from them yet?

You know, it’s all happened so quickly! I haven’t really had the time yet to (interact with well-wishers). It seems so incredibly recently I was sitting in this very room (in a Sandton hotel) when it became official. But the community has been fantastic. That said, the most important thing is the larger community; the South African public as a whole. I don’t want to get too ‘micro’ about it; there’s a macro audience (to satisfy).

The interesting thing about a Hashim Amla captaincy is how different it may be to the gung-ho, in-your-face, bulldog style of predecessors like Rice, Wessels, Smith ...

Well, a lot of us in our psyche have Graeme’s long tenure firmly in our minds. That’s a lasting impression. But I know there is a history before that ... it is a move away, but there are many ways to skin a cat, I guess.

You are seen as such a serene, even-tempered sort of character ... can Hashim Amla actually “do” angry, or be animated, when the need perhaps arises?

Well, Lerato (Malekutu, Proteas media officer) has probably seen me upset a fair few times (laughing)! Listen, it’s whatever the situation calls for. The way I see it is that as an individual you set bars for yourself, whether in training, or performance, and as captain that bar now just shifts onto the whole team. It’s difficult for me to say clearly yet what sort of style of captaincy I will have. I will discover it, plus I do have a frame of reference to fall on, even if it was a long time ago. Fortunately Graeme’s tenure was fantastic: I pay full tribute to him. I’ve inherited a really good team, and we’ve learnt from him.

Amla at three, Kallis four ... for years you two were seen as our bedrock Test batsmen. Now one of you has gone, and the other suddenly takes the extra responsibility of leadership as well. I assume you put a lot of thought into the possible impact on your batting?

Absolutely. I mean, of course there’s a chance it could impact; there are no guarantees. I don’t think there’s ever been a captain who takes the job and hasn’t wondered what the effect (on his game) will be. I’m hopeful it doesn’t impact, and the batting maybe gets better. Losing Jacques ... listen, we’re losing two players in one. It’s up to the rest of the players to rally to fill that void. It gives others the opportunity to improve their game. As for batting line-up, it’s something we will discuss; there was a consideration of me moving down the order to four. Kind of giving me a bit more time ... you know, if I’m captaining and batting.

That was going to be my next question! Kallis, of course, moved from three to four himself in his later years ...

If I wasn’t going to be captain, I reckon I’d probably stick at three for my whole (remaining Test) life, to be quite honest with you. But with leadership there is an argument for four. It also extends the batting line-up (as others would similarly move down a notch). Look, another argument is maybe we also need at some stage to groom another No 3 anyway, if I were to retire, get injured, get dropped ... whatever the case. So it’s not something that may happen immediately, but we may become more open to it. We will sit down with Russ (Domingo) and the selectors; try to get the best combination now that Jacques has gone and the balance has changed. In places like Sri Lanka you need to be a lot more resourceful in your ideas ... if it means tinkering a little bit, then so be it. It’s a phase where we will have to try a few things to fill the gaps. If we try to just go the same way, I believe we’ll be missing the boat.

Maybe with Vernon Philander recapturing his all-rounder mantle more and more of late, you don’t have to be too nervous about occasionally stationing him at No 7, say?

That’s a very good point, absolutely. We knew Vernon could bat, but I’ve always felt he’s such a proud cricketer: in his bowling ... he takes great care in it. It’s flowed into his (Test) batting as well. He doesn’t want to throw his wicket away; he applies himself. He’s shown he can do a smart job. But the other thing is you don’t want to now burden him with something ... I mean, seven is quite a high position. So maybe around eight for him is (better)? I don’t know; we’ve got to find something.

Are you comfortable with the PR and media aspects that will inevitably occupy much more of your time now?

I do find it a little strange that (some questions have been raised over it). Maybe it’s because on social media I am not as active. I think perhaps that’s why the impression gets given, “oh, he’s not (wanting) the limelight”. Fair enough, I do like my space. But I think the social media has influenced a lot of people’s thinking, in terms of putting yourself out there. Also, what more commitments can there really be? More interviews than I had before? More press conferences? OK, so be it.

Might your captaincy bring a new era in what could be termed compassionate man-management? You must know so much about the hardships of touring: hostile terrain, homesickness and so on ... you can pass on plenty of wisdom to younger players.

Luckily I’ve always got on well with the younger guys in the side anyway. From my own experience, any young guy coming into the national team, in any format, it’s a difficult environment. They need the support and sharing of experience to break that initial barrier. Myself and the other senior guys definitely rally around the younger ones, giving them the cushioning to perform. It’s the worst thing to come into the national team and feel isolated. I try to do it (help) anyway, never mind in captaincy terms. So from the skipper’s point of view I don’t know if I’ll actually be doing any more. It’s in the team culture already.

To his great credit, in the middle period of his captaincy, Graeme Smith admitted there had perhaps been a Proteas clique issue. Will you be fighting hard to avoid the phenomenon?

You can recognise cliques. There are two kinds: the one that can be positive and the destructive one. The destructive ones try to marginalise others in the team. Naturally we don’t want any of them ... and luckily there aren’t any in the team. Look, there will be guys who have their close friends: maybe they like the same music, movies or whatever. There’s no harm there ... actually it’s healthy to have somebody to relate to. And if mutual respect still exists within the team then what more do you want? The team is in a good space and to keep it like that will be one of the challenges, because cancers can develop, with a few losses here and there. It’s not just the captain’s responsibility ... it’s the players, the coach, the management.

Would you agree that your initial Test itinerary is relatively kind on paper, even if Sri Lanka away is a tough start? It’s Zimbabwe and West Indies next: perhaps that order of business is better than, say, one long series against India, England or Australia?

Yeah, I think so. You definitely want to try to settle into what is known as a pattern of play. This team still needs to find that. Without Graeme and Jacques, that pattern has changed. Sri Lanka is a very difficult job for us; we have to quickly adapt to what we’ll face there. There aren’t a lot of Tests this whole (season) – six games. This year is a relatively quiet year because of the concentration of ODIs, then the World Cup. So there’s actually a lot more attention on AB, probably starting from tonight (laughing; De Villiers would soon be named SA Cricketer of the Year). It gives the team a bit more time to settle down. This has worked out well, rather than going into seven or eight Tests in a row, or something. That’s probably best for us. Look, there’s always a glass half full, there’s always a positive out there ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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