Only a few kilometers outside the bustling coastal city of Durban, lies sleepy Tongaat. A middle-class town that resembles a quintessential Mumbai suburb with gated colonies co-existing with decrepit slums. In these parts, just like in similar Indian settlements across South Africa, Hashim Amla is the ultimate hero, a living legend. The shy younger son of the jolly local doctor and a devout Muslim, who grew up to be one of the foremost batsmen of his era.
‘Tongaat is sure to have cheered in unison on Tuesday as Amla was named as his country’s next Test captain. With the same vigour as they would have in 2004, when the graceful batting genius became the first South African of Indian-origin to play Test cricket. Amla’s appointment after all bridges an evident racial divide in a nation, which despite having abolished all quotas is yet to see a large number of non-white cricketers come up the ranks. Throughout his glittering career, the 31-year-old has had to live not just his dream but that of an entire generation of deprived Indians, who believe strongly that ‘We were too dark then to be allowed to play provincial cricket and now we aren’t dark enough to get a shot.’
En route to being handed the reins of the Test team, Amla has had to overcome the ‘outsider’ tag at every step, especially when he refused to sport the logo of the national team’s main sponsor — a liquor brand. Despite having made a significant mark at the domestic level, Amla’s initiation into international cricket was anything but smooth. His gait was awkward, his batting style unorthodox, his game considered one-dimensional, making the flowing beard only look more out of place.
He scored just 62 runs in his first three Tests, and wasn’t picked again for more than a year. Since, Amla’s average has jumped to 51.35. Presently he is South Africa’s batting mainstay, especially with Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis having hung up their boots.
Amla will also be the first of a kind in another regard. Nobody before him has had to deal with the burden of having to replace a skipper who led his nation for over 100 Tests during a period that lasted more than a decade. The Smith legacy will be one that will be tough to replicate. Amla’s demure and understated disposition will be in extreme contrast to Smith’s larger-than-life personality and his penchant to take on situations and oppositions head-on like a heavyweight boxer. And while the first priority on his agenda will be returning South Africa to the No.1 rank, after they were displaced by Mitchell Johnson and Australia in Smith’s farewell series; there will also be an onus on Amla to create his own niche as a leader.
Bharat is a principal correspondent in Mumbai