In praise of Amla the captain

30 December 2014

The biggest threat to modern medicine might not be Jenny McCarthy and the rest of the anti-vaxxers. It might be our very own Test captain, Hashim Amla, the poster boy for “phlegmatic”.

Google the word. It describes people who are “inward and private, thoughtful, reasonable, calm, patient, caring, and tolerant.” Such people “tend to have a rich inner life, seek a quiet, peaceful atmosphere, and be content with themselves.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit spooked. It’s like the internet dictionary stalked Amla and decided to reverse-engineer the word to fit the man. Any day now some homeopath / apothecarist double-major is going to make the connection and we’ll see a revival of this kind of Shakespearean witchcraft that kept life expectancy hovering around 40. By this time next year our hospitals could be knee-deep in leeches.

Medical apocalypse satire aside, let’s consider the evidence. Amla’s arrival as a Test batsman was quiet and inauspicious. He played three Tests in the 2004/05 season, fared poorly and was dropped for a year. He had been drafted into the side when only 21 and, although full of talent and promise, had a dodgy backlift. There was the inevitable, sinister susurrus of ‘quota player’. Amla was silent. He went back to franchise cricket and fixed his game.

His return in 2006 immediately brought him his first century – but against New Zealand bowlers that could be charitably described as journeymen. He worked hard. He did the dirty job of putting on the helmet at short leg and being cannon fodder for batsmen. He didn’t flirt with disaster but it made eyes at him in the form of a Dean Jones slur. The TV commentator (and former Test batsman for Australia) called Amla a ‘terrorist’ and was duly sacked.

Amla didn’t say much. He went back working hard, being calm, patient, caring and tolerant.

By the end of 2008 Amla’s Test average first poked above 40, when he started to regularly extract runs. He had moved from the matinee slot at the Kallis Big Show to being a co-star in the ’06 and ’07 summer productions of A Spanking Good Time With New Zealand.

Amla was a regular member of the cast. He had made it in his own quiet, unflappable way. He hadn’t courted any controversy, but some of it came to woo him anyway. He had refused to wear the national sponsor’s logo on his Test whites because any association with the alcohol industry would be haraam for a Muslim.

He didn’t issue a press statement. He didn’t say a word. But if a picture paints a thousand words, the absence of a logo (broadcast to millions of screens) could fill an library of op-eds and radio commentary. A few people at the time said that he wasn’t a good enough player to be making the demands that he was making.

Just as a quick aside, do you see how easy it is to slip into the stereotypes of the ‘bearded terrorist’ variety? Two paragraphs up I say how Amla ‘refused’ to wear the logo, and one up I refer to the ‘demands that he was making.’ You see how a person must guard themselves against turning into Dean Jones or a facsimile thereof?

The thing is, you can’t imagine Amla ‘making demands’ of anyone except himself. If we really must extend the excruciating and overused metaphor, the only cell he ever joined was the Proteas. The only cause he ever martyred himself for was South African cricket. He wore the oppositions’ on-drives on his body for his teammates. He suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous bigotry and he was dignity personified.

A press statement was eventually issued by Amla’s agent in December 2009. Amla was not allowed to take the sponsor’s money. He didn’t want to make a fuss. He was just trying to live a halaal life and be the best Test player he could be.

Incidentally, his ODI career was only two years old by this point and 22 innings deep. People had said that he was a Test specialist and that he would be too slow for the one-day format. In December 2009 Amla’s average ODI score was over 47 runs. Since then his average has climbed into the 50s, peaking at over 60 runs a couple of times. But this is a Test cricket article, and Amla’s insane ODI stats are another story for another time.

For South Africans, we who are fixated on symbols and appearances maybe more than anyone else, Amla had done his work as an ambassador for Muslims, South Africans of Indian descent, and South Africans in general. There were no more detractors.

By the end of 2010 Amla’s light had outgrown any bushels to hide under. In that calendar year he scored over 1 200 runs at an average of 78. His haul included five centuries and four half-centuries, with most of the runs scored in overseas campaigns against India and Pakistan.

Amla could score big runs. He wasn’t just the delicious filling between Smith and Kallis, the two biggest slabs of whitebread around. He had been a matchwinner before, now he could help win you a series. How could there be any doubters?

Okay, said the doubters. We yield. He has found his work-life balance. He’s a wonderful batsman and definitely in the side on his merits alone.

Amla’s batting continued to flourish and he continued to be humble. I would even wager a small amount of money that, if you go back to any post-match interviews with the man after he scored 311 unbeaten runs in England in 2012, he would have said something like “It was a fine team effort, great to see Graeme and Jacques getting big scores, well done to the boys” or some other such self-effacing straight-battery.

If there was any controversy (and some pretty useful foreshadowing for the purposes of this article) it was that Amla wasn’t captain material. One again, consider the evidence: He had captained the Dolphins around the time of his Test debut, and pretty successfully too for a season. He gave up the captaincy to fix his batting.

He was handed the vice-captaincy of both the ODI and T20 teams in 2011 and was almost immediately elevated to captain when AB de Villiers because injured, for just one T20 and one ODI series in Australia. He remained vice-captain until early-2013 and then stepped down abruptly, asking for the space to concentrate on his batting.

The people of South Africa accepted his decision with grace. We saw it as another example of his honesty, his dedication to his craft. He has already given us so much, we though. Ninety-five per cent of a loaf is better than none. The floor just below the penthouse on the Burj Khalifa is not the penthouse but the view is still pretty spectacular.

There was no disappointment, but there was the crystallisation of another layer of myth around the man: Amla the devout Muslim, the team player, the batting genius was now also Amla the savant – and what a double-edged word that is.

He was undoubtedly a expert, but one contained by the demands of his craft and his focus on a single goal, a goal that didn’t include leading his team. He could be the team’s backbone but not its brain, its nose.

Amla’s layers fit together nicely and his stories dovetailed into a good narrative: talent, peace, resolution, restraint. And another box was ticked for me, through the prism of my own prejudices and my own scenic route to religion: that Amla’s faith and his phlegmatic approach to life, Test cricket and everything was what stood in the way to Test captaincy.

It’s a lazy prejudice that works on a join-the-dots kind of logic. Belief in a higher power can encourage a tendency towards fatalism, a belief in the pre-ordained. It can be a great asset to batsman in the middle who must find his focus and ignore the chest-beating of the fielding side.

But to a Test captain who has to always be hunting for twenty wickets, who has to know how to make demands of his men, what use does he have for fatalism? Plus, the man has already refused the crown at least twice. Surely there can be no more hope or speculation?

These were my thoughts. In 2013, the Proteas had both hands on the ICC Test Championship mace but their grip wasn’t tight. South Africa had ended Australia’s decades-long reign in 2009 but could only top the Test rankings for three months. India took over for two years, and then England for a year.

We had kicked England off the top perch in 2012, the year of our successful tour and Amla’s unbeaten 311 at the Oval. Graeme Smith got us back to the top and we surely had another year of him at least before we had to hunt for a successor. These were my thoughts.

And then Australia and Mitchell Johnson happened to us during their 2013/14 tour. The Proteas lost their first series in five years (the 2008/09 season also at home, also against Australia) and Australia was in first place  once again. Graeme Smith retired. Amla was appointed Test captain.

To be fair, the other possible appointments would also have been met with apprehension: de Villiers had also demurred at one point in his career when offered more responsibility (as a wicketkeeper-batsman) and du Plessis was seen as inexperienced. (de Villiers did express his disappointment at being looked over when Amla was chosen, so maybe both of them were finally ready to lead the Test team.)

It was also an inauspicious time to change the guard. Kallis and Smith had retired in quick succession and the Proteas were about to tour Sri Lanka, where they had last been defeated on tour, back in 2006. Of all the possible choices, Amla caused the deepest furrows in the brow.

And yet, in the just-going-on-five matches of his career as captain, Amla has shown flair and a proactive spirit.

Consider the two-Test tour of Sri Lanka in July this year and contrast it with India’s two-Test tour of us just a year before, just one series before Australia and Smith’s retirement. Amla was leading a team that had just lost over 250 Tests’ worth of experience in Kallis and Smith.

He ended up declaring twice in that Galle match, giving his bowlers enough time to take the twenty wickets they would need to win the game, even though the second declaration also gave Sri Lanka enough time to win the match. Half a year earlier, Smith alienated a number of supporters with his decision to play for a draw against India, when a win was ultimately just seven runs away. Amla showed that he was not going to die wondering about predestination.

The win was followed by a hard-fought draw, handing the Proteas the series win. If Amla had been waiting for the miracle instead of making it happen, the Proteas could have drawn the series or even lost it.  Amla’s approach to the make-or-break first Test was positively Australian compared to Smith’s.

The Sri Lanka series was followed by a regulation win in Zimbabwe and then the first game of the current series with West Indies, where Amla again declared after only 140 overs of batting. That Test was also won.

Not much can be read into the stats at this point – Amla’s current success ratio of 75% (three wins and one draw) will probably fall to 60% as the second match against the West Indies squelches towards a draw in Port Elizabeth. Even the number one team can’t beat the elements, and the phlegmatic temperament is said to be associated with water. Amla will no doubt find digest the learning experience, make a pleasant and supportive post-match statement, and then focus on taking twenty wickets at Newlands in 2015.

Some of Amla’s choices have been made out of luxury and out of necessity. He was able to declare so early in Galle because he could rely on de Villiers and de Kock to bank enough runs. He declared halfway through the second day at Centurion because the weather was threatening to force a draw.

He’s managing to keep it all together so far. The cracks at the top of the batting are being plastered over by him and de Villiers. Enough of the debutantes have performed (Elgar, de Kock, van Zyl and the bowling troika of Steyn, Philander and Morkel manage to have just the right tools for the job. Amla the batsman has remained magnificent, saving the Test at Colombo and setting up the win at Centurion with an unfussy double-ton.

Those layers of myth built around Amla the Stoic and Unadventurous may have to be sloughed off. When Amla finally accepted the captaincy he said this, in a press statement:

“I have concentrated on taking my batting to the highest possible level, and now I feel I am in a position to make a contribution to South African cricket in a leadership role.”

He delivered his statement in his matter-of-fact way, neither prideful nor self-conscious. He spoke about the things he knew to be true: his effort, his self-belief, and his dedication to the team’s success. He feels that he has grown into the role, and I defy any person to doubt him at this point.

It’s an interesting time in Test cricket. It’s tough and transient at the top. South Africa doesn’t have the financial or organisational clout to dictate touring schedules. The paucity of tests played increases the pressure every time the team takes to the field in whites. For the Proteas to stay at or near the top means that every Test must be approached with intensity and a will to win.

In addition, in a world full of sledges and stump-mic slights, Amla’s controlled, almost respectful, aggression on the field seems like an anachronism, as if the Proteas could become a steampunk version of themselves. Let’s not confuse Amla’s approach with the rest of the teams’, but if there’s a person who could weld together the modern need to win with a classic note of class, Amla’s your man.

On a national level, as we struggle to normalise our relationship between sport and race, while we risk fixating on the novelty of Rabada and Bavuma, we have a captain who has done much of the hard work to dispel our fears and anxieties around race and religion in sport. This is the Age of Amla and it is wonderful.


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