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
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
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
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
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.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing