Hashim Amla was at the centre of attention before a Test match for the second time in a little over six months as South Africa prepared for the third match of their series against England, which started at the Oval in London on Thursday.
The sense of “occasion” was provided by the magnificent Vauxhall venue becoming just the fourth in the world to stage a century of Tests — behind Lord’s and both the Sydney Cricket Ground and Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia.
Naturally, there was a strong sense of nostalgia in the build-up to the match, with the greatest matches and performances being remembered and relived. One of them came from Amla five years ago during a famous South African victory by an innings and 12 runs.
The Proteas’ batting line-up in 2012 was almost certainly the strongest in the country’s history, with captain Graeme Smith leading the way for Jacques Kallis, Amla and AB de Villiers in the middle order. In the first Test of the series, only three of them were required.
The tourists’ total of 637-2 was comfortably the highest Test score for the loss of just two wickets but all the many records that were set paled in comparison with the 26th Test triple century, the first in England for 22 years (since Graham Gooch’s 333 in 1990) and the first by a South African: Amla’s unbeaten 311 from 529 deliveries with 35 fours.
Moments after South Africa had won the game, Amla was informed that he had ascended to the number one ranking in the world. He chuckled. “I’m not sure about that; I’m not even the best batsman in my team,” he replied.
It is often forgotten that England dominated the first day of the match, reaching 267-3 with Alastair Cook unbeaten on 114, but the tourists fought back to dismiss England for 385 before losing opener Alviro Petersen for a duck and reaching the close of the second day on 86-1.
On the third morning, Smith and Amla took the total to 260 before the captain was bowled for an energy-sapping 131. As beautifully as Amla had played up to that point, and even though he was to be joined by the great Kallis on a pitch then at its best for batting, nobody in their wildest dreams — or worst nightmares — could imagine that it would be another 377 runs and 102 wicketless overs before England would finally be put out of their misery with a fourth-day teatime declaration.
Much was made of Amla’s ability to negate in-form off-spinner Graeme Swann by batting on off-stump and getting outside the line to reduce the risk of lbw. But that’s not the way Swann remembers it.
“It was Kallis who did most of that. I actually spent two days trying to bowl Hashim through the gate. There was a gaping hole between bat and bat — for 52 overs I was convinced he was going to miss one but he kept driving me through extra cover every time, middle of the bat, perfect timing. In between he’d just look at me with that Zenlike face, no change in expression,” Swann said. “It still gives me the shivers five years later.”
Amla’s touch against the seamers was similarly deft, his remorselessly perfect judgment about leaving as important as the wristy tucks off the hip, through midwicket and, of course, the cover drives.
The 13 hours and nine minutes he spent at the crease would have sapped the energy of most men in most conditions. Amla had to contend with taking fluids on board only during the lunch and tea breaks out of respect for his fellow Muslims celebrating Ramadan.
Amla rode the ebbs and flows of his innings as if in a trance. At one stage, after approximately 10 hours, England finally managed to apply a “strangle” — but not suffocation. No runs in 43 minutes. Then a punch through the off side into a slim gap and the wheels were in motion again.
The media were agog at the symbolism and significance of it all. South Africa’s first individual 300, and by a “man of colour”. A role model for future generations, a landmark for thousands of children to aspire to. Amla was as charming and as unruffled as he had been at the crease.
“History wasn’t my best subject at school. The post-apartheid era has been around for a long time now so we are accustomed to seeing people of all races representing South Africa and enjoying some success. I understand that members of the older generations may find some satisfaction in my achievements but it is not a factor for me or the team. We were just little boys when Nelson Mandela was released from prison,” Amla said.
“You are a role model as an international sportsman; there is no debate. The only choice you have is whether you are a good role model or a bad one. I want to be a good one.”
There is no doubt that Amla had been one of the finest up to that point in his career and has continued being so until now, as he returns to a venue he admits is “close to his heart”, having played two stints for Surrey in the intervening five years since his epic innings in 2012.
Just over six months ago, the fuss was all about Amla’s 100th Test. It was against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers and he rose to the occasion with a gritty century despite being some way below his best form. It exceeds fair expectation to think he could do so again, but you wouldn’t bet against it.