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22 Feb 2013 00:00
The Mighty #: Hashim Amla's mental strength sets him apart. (Getty)
A season of record-breaking achievements has seen Graeme Smith rightly honoured for captaincy landmarks that may never be matched and Dale Steyn for fast bowling as incisive as the game has ever witnessed.
AB de Villiers's wicketkeeping was in the spotlight at the Wanderers, Vernon Philander's charge towards 100 Test wickets in record time has kept headline writers busy and the rise of Faf du Plessis has commanded almost as much attention.
One man will do all he can to stay under the radar, however, because that's where he feels most comfortable. It's a challenge, though, when you're the best in the world.
Hashim Amla is the first batsman since Ricky Ponting almost a decade ago to hold the number one world ranking in both Test and ODI cricket simultaneously.
But he genuinely believes he isn't even the best batsman in the team, never mind the world, in either format.
Murphy's Law dictates that speculation about impending records prevents them from happening but it's worth noting that one more century will see Amla join a club once regarded as the definitive measure of greatness – the "20 Century Club".
The notion that Amla was somehow "destined" for greatness is cheerfully dispelled by all those who shared his early years.
One of the few men who declared publicly that Amla would "undoubtedly play many games for South Africa" wasn't even a cricket "expert", but the under-19 physical trainer, Andy Gray, who watched the young man captain the team defeated in the World Cup final of 2001.
"He stood out … a long way. He was intent on making every moment count, he was always trying to learn something from every situation. As the trainer, I was in a different situation to the cricket coaches; there were often groans when it came to fitness tests and the like – but not from him.
"He may not have been the most naturally athletic but that was irrelevant to him. Hash just wanted to know where he needed to be with strength and conditioning, and how to get there. The more I trained international cricketers, the more I realised that their success was based more on mental strength and attitude than skill and technique," Gray said this week.
Paul Harris was in the same Plascon Academy intake in those early years: "He was obviously a special player but I'd be lying if I said I thought he would become the player he has today. One thing made him different, though. He listened to everything. Whoever was speaking, he watched and listened with intense respect. Obviously he filtered the information and took what he thought was best but he focused on everything. The rest of us would switch off," Harris said.
Ryan McLaren, now an international teammate, has similar memories. "The Academy training routines were tough and we practised hard. It was funny, though, because he would bat for hours on end with a smile on his face. He didn't smile when it came to running shuttles and doping weights but he did it. In retrospect, nothing was going to stop him," McLaren said.
"At Michaelmas Cricket week in 'Maritzburg, when I was playing for Grey and Hash was at DHS – we were in standard eight – the shots he played were of a different class. We hadn't seen the like before. At 14 years old, I could see that he was [in a] different class, so I'm not surprised to see how far he has come.
"He had his critics after he debuted against England in 2004 and he had a lean spell after that. But in true Hash fashion he put his head down and worked hard. He was, literally, the first to go into the nets and the last to leave. He faced the seamers for as long as he was allowed, then the spinners. After that he would ask for throw-downs or the bowling machine," McLaren said.
'Quality, not quantity'
These days Amla has bought into Gary Kirsten's training philosophy of "quality, not quantity" but that hasn't stopped the hard work – when he feels it's necessary.
"One area which is genuinely underrated is his athleticism and fielding," McLaren said. "Maybe he wasn't the best at first, but he worked his backside off on catching and ground fielding. And it says an awful lot about his character that he was willing to do the short leg job for the team for so long.
"He truly is one of the nicest men I have ever played cricket with and a true gentleman. I'm so happy that he's built the incredible career that he has today, and the best is probably still yet to come," said McLaren.
Hard work, then. Is that it? The secret?
All-rounder Jon Kent was playing for the Dolphins when the teenaged Amla made his debut. He has seen a "slightly chubby kid" with "amazing skills" become the best batsman in the world. How did he do it?
"He came to speak to some of the young kids just recently and we caught a glimpse of his secret," Kent said with a smile. "Blue skies. That's it, really. He told the guys to clear their minds and think of nothing but the ball … and blue sky."
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