Cape Town – Once the backslapping phase dies down, newly-installed Proteas captain Hashim Amla faces probably his toughest assignment since his nervous introduction to Test cricket around a decade ago.
There were doubters then, some of whom felt he was being fast-tracked to suit political agendas (yawn, heard that one before?), and just for a while they were able to bask in misguided self-righteousness as Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and company in a booming England period made his early batting life uncomfortable at the very least.
He wasn’t the only one in 2004/05.
But Hashim Mahomed Amla is made of sterner stuff than they suspected: by the time his fourth appearance came around, he was rattling off 149 against New Zealand at Newlands and you sensed the train had begun to glide smoothly out of the station and pick up a fair old lick after those initial jerks and rattles.
And look at him now: 76 Tests, 6,214 runs, average an awe-inspiring 51.35. In short, one of the world’s best and most admired cricketers.
That particular battle to confirm mettle most emphatically won, the now 31-year-old, indisputably senior-level South Africa player begins another challenge in a few weeks -- and one that is different because it takes him greatly out of his comfort zone of purely cricketing talent and near-metronomic own statistical success.
His installation as captain to succeed the unusually long-reigning Graeme Smith, a big presence in leadership if ever there was one, comes loaded with various fresh questions about the Durban-born batsman.
The key one understandably revolves around his actual relish for the responsibility: if true leaders are born rather than manufactured, why then has Amla shown such a long-time reluctance to embrace it, either at domestic or international level?
Inner strength is one thing, but just how effectively can this soft-spoken and unassuming soul ensure that that quality seeps constructively into the collective? Just how animatedly, too, will he be able to “gee the boys up” in tight spots or times of wretched fatigue or homesickness?
A strong alternative school of thought, however, might well be: just what is to stop an individual, so well entrenched in the general set-up, eventually coming around to the idea that he can lead the troops, and in his own resolute, possibly fresh and home-cooked way?
Surely it is not so heinous or implausible a notion?
Let me freely admit: I had been just tilting personally toward AB de Villiers – his own warts and all in captaincy of the ODI side thus far taken into account – as the correct choice.
He would be a lot closer ethos-wise to Smith as Test skipper, I imagined ... and that amidst a remaining batch of personnel who have had enough adjustments to make of late through the gradual departures of such once-staple, take-no-prisoners figures as “Biff” himself and his very close top-table allies Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher.
Under a De Villiers style of leadership, South Africa would certainly retain an up-and-at-‘em, spiky spirit, pushing out their jaws to invite the punches, as it were, and then priding themselves on a firm determination not to take a backward step in bouncer warfare, verbal tirades and the like.
Of course you can sometimes get a bit crudely “caught up” – detrimentally -- in such matters, something arguably evidenced as Australia’s cocky David Warner and company got under the Proteas’ skins more than they might have liked last summer and darted home with a 2-1 series win and slightly dubious return to the top of the ICC rankings.
That said, much of me still suspects that the bulldog, sheer bloody-minded way is the one that best keeps South Africa consistently there or thereabouts at the top of the Test pile.
That is why I have been inclined toward De Villiers perhaps a little more naturally grabbing the baton and being able to run with it.
With the player who commentator Mike Haysman enthusiastically brands the “Peaceful Warrior” now in charge, the culture of the SA dressing room and even the playing style and mood of the Test side may alter a good deal.
When Smith had the reins, and more particularly in the earlier chapters of his overwhelmingly impressive tenure, he and his inner circle were the main team “jocks”, for want of a better word – the partygoers, the gung-ho golfers, the practical jokers – and he even candidly admitted around the middle of his term that there had probably been more of a clique issue at one point than was desirable.
With the studious-looking, god-fearing, teetotalling Amla as captain, the dynamic automatically changes to a fair degree ... and who is to say that may not turn out to be constructive, something that perhaps even makes younger, less experienced members of the team feel more integral and attached to its overall fabric?
He has the potential to be a tranquil, sincere unifier, plus you feel he may well be no less capable than Smith at sitting down in a quiet corner with a squad-mate who is having problems, whether technical or personal; Amla’s pure humanity is an asset often highlighted by those who know him well.
Let me confess this much: I have seldom felt so content about my personal “second choice” for any given situation instead cracking the primary nod!
So they didn’t opt for De Villiers ... it doesn’t mean the big-shoes-to-fill post has fallen into bad or ill-chosen hands. Keep in mind also that the Titans favourite still has the demanding task of steering South Africa’s quest at another, hitherto so elusive World Cup early next year.
I am curious, and more than a little excited, about the new qualities – he’s already used the word “unique” -- we will see Amla wish to infuse to the Test side.
There’s a genuinely good person, respecter of fair play and valuer of cricket tradition and etiquette at the tiller, and that’s a promising start.
It would be severely disingenuous of anyone to insist that he has been chosen primarily because he ticks the box of some demanding commissar or other in our country’s eternally complex political landscape: Hashim Amla is a character of proven reputation and track record that far supersedes such considerations, even if they would not have been entirely absent in the appointment process.
We should unite in wishing him well, because he
wholeheartedly deserves that.
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