Hashim Amla: Wisdom beyond his years
Hashim Amla exudes such warmth and laughs so easily that he sounds serene as he describes his tumultuous cricketing journey.
Just as he has compiled two seemingly effortless centuries in the pair of warm-up matches before the first Test against England, which started at Lord’s on Thursday, so Amla explains calmly how he transcended a crude stereotype depicting him as “the terrorist” to be hailed as the next likely captain of South Africa.
“I actually enjoy reflecting on all that has happened these past few years because, in a small way, it adds to our knowledge of other people,” he says lightly. And yet Amla’s name, at least until the start of this potentially riveting series, has been associated most with a story that illuminates both a personal struggle and a darker world full of fear and misunderstanding.
The creeping paranoia and confused disdain fuelling a Western phobia of Islam spilled over into international cricket during an otherwise routine Test between Sri Lanka and South Africa in August 2006.
Amla, trademark beard visible beneath hat and sunglasses, crouched at backward point on a steamy afternoon in Colombo as Kumar Sangakkara faced Shaun Pollock. Sri Lanka were cruising at 94 for one and it was the kind of moment in the field that could crush an immensely promising but still vulnerable young Test cricketer.
Amla had just fought his way back from a long spell out of the side after his initial selection saw him dismissed as a “quota” player picked to appease politicians bent on compensating for the inequities of apartheid. For a batsman of such class it was a cruel jibe.
Amla believed he had been chosen on merit alone, rather than because he was the first South African of Indian descent to play Test cricket.
Sangakkara cracked Pollock’s delivery hard and the ball flew towards Amla. A dropped catch would have provided more evidence for his critics but, with an athletic swoop, Amla made a difficult chance look simple.
Dean Jones, the Australian Test cricketer turned commentator, paused significantly. And then, wrongly assuming that broadcasters around the world had cut away to a commercial break, he said the mocking words: “The terrorist has got another wicket.”
The whole story
Two years later Amla has the grace to smile benignly at an insulting memory. “I’ll tell you the whole story. I got off the field and went to my room and checked my messages. A friend of mine texted me and said, ‘Listen, there’s a big thing back home; one of the commentators called you a terrorist.’
“I thought he was kidding. So I sent back a message saying ‘Stop messing around.’ But when I went down for supper the manager told me what Dean Jones said. There were going to be lots of questions and SA Cricket had already released a statement. I said, ‘OK, cool.’
“At about quarter to 10 I remember taking this call. It was from Dean Jones and he apologised and I said, ‘No problem.’ I thought that was the end of it. But obviously there were implications—and a lot more media questions when he got back home. Coming from South Africa, which is very sensitive to stereotyping, it was a big thing back home. It was a lesson to everybody who has hidden stereotypes.
“I remember Dean said to me, when he apologised, ‘Sorry, mate, I didn’t mean for it to come out on air ... “
Amla smiles wryly at Jones’s mistaken belief that his words might have been excusable if his mic had been switched to mute. “Nevertheless, the teaching of Islam is that if anyone tries to apologise, you forgive them. We all have some inward prejudices that we need to address, whether they be of colour, race or religion.”
Beyond the diplomacy Amla reveals a more private pain. “It did hurt. When somebody calls you something like that you don’t say, ‘Thank you!’ That’s not the thing to do. But when a guy apologises, even if it’s that kind of apology, who is to judge but the Almighty? And if it prompts another person to make an effort to find what Islam means, then a lot of prejudices will be blown away.”
Amla cackles when asked if Jones’s reaction represents a cultural myth in the west that any young Muslim with a beard must secretly support al-Qaeda. “If that is the prevailing mindset of people and this [incident with Jones] prompts them to understand Islam from a pure source, then they will be enlightened. So I love it when guys ask me about Islam or my beard. To share knowledge is a duty.”
Revelling in the suggestion that Lord’s will see the best set of whiskers in cricket since WG Grace, Amla contemplates his beard proudly. But as his father and sister are both doctors, as was Grace, he is not about to claim precedence over the bearded master.
“I have seen pictures of his beard but mine is definitely shorter. The optimum length for me, as a Muslim, is for the beard to be of fist-length. But it is not purely a tribute to Islam. If you go back many years the beard is a tribute to all the faiths stemming from the biblical Abraham—or Ibrahim, as we say in Islam.
“In the Christian tradition Jesus, peace be upon him, has a beard. In the Jewish tradition Moses has a beard. And in Islam we have Muhammad, whom Muslims believe is the final messenger, and he kept a beard because it was the tradition of all the other messengers before him. We see it as universal.”
Recent suggestions that the 25-year-old will eventually succeed Graeme Smith as South Africa’s captain are given credence both by his supreme batting and maturity off the field.
“I captained South Africa Under-19s when we got to the final of the World Cup. We lost to Australia but it was a lovely experience. When you’re [an] under-19 you know the seriousness of cricket and you want to win, but you have a lot of fun. When I captained the Dolphins I was only 21 and it was an intense time. I remember we did quite well—but I took things very seriously.”
Amla was then in the midst of his own battle to secure a Test place. After making his debut in India in 2004 he looked out of his depth later that year and in early 2005 against England—scoring 36 runs in four innings. He did not play another Test for 18 months. But Amla forced himself back into contention by topping the domestic averages and insists that he never regarded himself as a “quota selection”.
“I’ve been very fortunate that in every division I’ve played I’ve probably been the highest run scorer. When I got picked for South Africa I was one of the guys in the best form—so it was never an issue.”
Such conviction was apparent when, on his return against New Zealand in 2006, Amla hit a gritty 149—and followed it with a half-century in the next Test. His most recent hundred, when he endured seven-and-a-half hours of withering heat in India to score an unbeaten 159, underlined his burgeoning mastery.
Having won six successive series before their impressive draw in India, South Africa are now much more resilient than the serial chokers who lost various World Cups and winnable Test matches to England and Australia. “We’re confident but we have had a long break since our last Test match [in April]. England have been playing Test cricket very recently—so they’re a settled team.”
In contrast to England, who have failed to get past 400 in the first innings for more than a year, South Africa are scoring freely—with Amla and Jacques Kallis, at three and four, the cornerstones despite Smith and Neil McKenzie’s world-record opening partnership of 415 in Bangladesh.
“In the last two Test series we’ve got a lot of runs. We did well in India, but this will be an even bigger challenge. This whole year is a massive test—with tours away to India, England and Australia.”—