South Africa: The Meaning of Hashim Amla

The Proteas’ legendary batsman brought more to the team than his record-breaking runs. But before he earned legend status, he had to endure being reduced to an ‘outsider’.

There is a press clipping that, if the archive library at Newspaper House in Durban has survived the relentless cost-cutting, will be yellowing around the edges in a school sports folder.

It is illustrated with a photograph of a fresh-faced, teenage Hashim Amla pranking around with bats and balls and other youngsters in that hammy manner news photographers resort to when asked to find something transcendental in the prosaic.

It would have been taken in 1999 or 2000, when Amla was accumulating runs for Durban High School (DHS) at a rate that had already alerted journalists, cricket enthusiasts, teachers and provincial talent-spotters to his potential as a future international cricketer for South Africa.

A cricketer to follow the more than 30 international caps DHS had produced since George Shepstone in 1896 and has since included the likes of Hugh Tayfield, Barry Richards and Lance Klusener.

Amla was another product, and captain, of one of South Africa’s grandest cricketing establishments. His colour, or religion, mattered much less than the glory he was bringing to “School” as he racked up 972 runs in his matric year at an average of 57.18, top-scoring in 11 of the 18 matches the First XI played.

Since his move from a formerly Indians-only school in Tongaat to DHS in 1997, Amla’s sporting ability ensured that his assimilation into the formerly whites-only elite school network was, by his own account, untroubled. During an awkward time of racial exploration within class boundaries in South Africa, he did not have to suffer the slings and arrows of racial prejudice, merely what teenage bowlers slung his way.

“The colour of your skin was very big then, and is still very important in South Africa and in the dynamics of the country, but when we were growing up it was just: ‘You’re just playing cricket and scoring runs or whatever’,” he told me in a 2016 interview.

“Obviously for me, [race is] still not such a big thing. The guys who were in my class, my school team, they were of different races and from different backgrounds. Sports was a big thing, it was a major unifying factor.”

That racism would come later: at club level, in how the South African media demonstrated its own limitations in conceiving of Amla, in the white population’s initial sneering at his technique with his back-lift swirling to gully and in everyday life.

Challenging the establishment

But, back in the late 1990s, Amla’s prodigious talent ensured he was quickly accepted into the cricketing establishment. He was middle-class, not abrasive, popular for his cricketing ability, had an easy manner and fitted in at high school.

Yet, whether he wanted to or not, whether he was aware or oblivious, the emergence of the teenage Amla as a cricketing prodigy had also lit, or fanned, fires of hope and resistance among the cricketing and sporting anti-establishment.

Among those whose own black talent had been extinguished by the sub-citizenship rendered unto them by apartheid, which prevented everything from training on proper facilities to being recognised as a member of one’s country and representing it.

His appearance fired up radical former South African Council on Sports administrators and sportsmen who still protested against the white-dominated cricketing establishment for its recalcitrance in developing black cricket in townships and rural villages. For them, he became a symbol of the possibility of black potential fulfilled if one could play “normal sport” in a “normal society”.

He stirred emotions – some unprecedented – among ordinary black South Africans who still pointedly refused to support an almost all-white cricketing team whose values, which still hinged on white supremacy, were far removed from their own egalitarian vision.

Amla caused a decisive moment of reflection, especially for people in KwaZulu-Natal, a hotbed of politics where Cricket South Africa’s predecessor, the United Cricket Board of South Africa, found that anti-South African sentiment in the late 1990s and early 2000s was more vitriolic than when the team toured Australia.

His emergence gave an opportunity to hundreds of thousands of black South Africans to continue reassessing their relationship with their personal and collective histories, their country, the national cricket union and a national team that purported to represent them. A reappraisal that had sprung with hope when Makhaya Ntini had become a fixture in the South African side after becoming the first black African to make his Test debut, in 1998, but foundered when that transformation had stalled with the fast bowler , Alviro Petersen and just a handful of others.

Like a sword that cuts on both ends, Amla represented the establishment, but he also came to represent the many forces against it – even as a sports-mad, apolitical teenager.

Twenty years later, as Amla announced his retirement from international cricket in the same week his friend, the great fast bowler Dale Steyn did so, the batsman closed a career that, wittingly or unwittingly – and despite his best attempts at avoiding controversy to “just concentrate on facing balls at 150km/h” – remains seismic for its subversion of long-held establishment beliefs, aesthetics, codes, “standards” and notions of white supremacy.

Becoming one of South Africa’s greats

In the preface to his seminal book, Beyond a Boundary, the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James poses the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

“To answer,” James responds, “involves ideas as well as facts.”

The 36-year-old veteran – bearded, brown, bespectacled – had, since a nervy Test debut in Kolkata, India, in 2004, provided a factual accumulation of runs and records set, that challenged the country’s media, cricketing powerbrokers, players and ordinary white South Africans to embark on a 15-year journey of ideas, and the imagination. This would force some to reorientate their view of what constituted sporting excellence, pride and prejudice, non-racialism, transformation, belonging, “the Other” and an inclusive multilayered South African identity.

This he did by being so good that he became one of South Africa’s greats.

Initially dismissed as a “token” and “quota” player with neither the technique nor talent to cut it at international level, the country’s white-dominated media and cricket-watching public thought of Amla as nothing more than an example of South Africa’s political and transformation imperatives that were diminishing the standards of their game.

Then he went on to become the fastest player in the world to reach 2 000 one-day international (ODI) runs, the fastest to 3 000, 4 000, 5 000, 6 000 and 7 000. Faster even than the great West Indian Viv Richards and India’s captain, Virat Kohli, who only bettered Amla in reaching 8 000 ODI runs.

At The Oval in 2012, Amla became the first, and still the only, South African to score a triple Test century. His 311 not out surpassed white media darlings like Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, his captain Graeme Smith and the likes of Darryl Cullinan and Graeme Pollock.

With a quiet elegance and an atypical batting technique that often favoured the sjambok-like, lightning-quick use of the wrists, he played his cricket and amassed runs that unequivocally refuted the racists’ moaning about the inclusion of black batsmen, like himself, Ashwell Prince, Temba Bavuma and others.

He became one of the mainstays – a “father figure” according to his last captain, Faf du Plessis, a “rock” according to former teammate De Villiers – in a team that went on to dominate Test cricket over a period when it held on to the status of the No. 1 ranked Test team in the world for stretches.

During a period when the South Africans went unbeaten overseas for a decade, Amla won the Wisden Cricketer of the Year award in 2013, the International Cricket Council (ICC) ODI Player of the Year and ICC Cricketer of the Year in 2010, and was, for periods, the No. 1 ranked Test batsman in the world.

He ended his international career in August 2019 having scored 9 282 runs (with 28 centuries) in 124 Test matches at an average of 46.64. He’d also played 181 ODIs and scored 8 113 runs, including 27 centuries. With his reflexes slowing with age, a slump in form over the last two years of his career brought down averages that had otherwise consistently remained over the 50 mark once his career had taken off properly.

During that career, Amla achieved many firsts: he was appointed South Africa’s first permanent black captain. He was the first South African of Indian descent to play for the Proteas. He was also the first Muslim to play for a traditionally conservative Christian national team. The first overtly Muslim player to be selected for one of the traditionally white cricketing nations; before England’s Moeen Ali, there was Hashim Mohammed Amla.

Rising along with Islamophobia

He did not wear the South African national team sponsor’s logo – a beer company – on his shirt, and at a bare minimum, caused a rethink about post-match celebrations and fines ceremonies.

But the effects of his presence ran much deeper than avoiding a champagne-sodden kit. It went to the very heart of South Africa’s grappling with rainbow nationalism and the world’s struggles with religious intolerance and Christendom’s genocides.

Making his Proteas debut three years after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, and a year after George W Bush and Tony Blair’s unholy invasion of Iraq, Amla entered international cricket at a time of heightened Islamophobia. Two years later, in a Colombo Test match, after fielding a catch at backward point that sent Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara back to the pavilion, he was called a “terrorist” on air by former Australian batsman Dean Jones.

In the early 2000s, the Muslim had become the most feared – and detested – “Other”. Yet, here was a serene, laid-back young man who demonstrated the “old-school” commonality that cricketers who have come through the elite schools system found across the former British Empire recognise quickly in each other.

Before the Indian Premier League and its demystifying and culturally inclusionary effects on cricketers from different backgrounds and parts of the world, international cricket structures were white-dominated, macho, unreconstructed and reactionary.

Amla’s presence in a traditionally white team was forcing a rethink because he was so good, he had become impossible to ignore. Whereas previous black batsmen in the South African team, like Prince or Petersen, had been on par with, if not better than, their (more protected and less vilified) white counterparts like Jacques Rudolph and Neil McKenzie, Amla was on a sublimely higher level.

His presence in the South African national cricket team only 10 years after the end of apartheid and the country’s first democratic elections was to prove landmark. It was a time when South Africa was tentatively – and with a degree of optimism, still – searching out a new vision of itself based on a progressive Constitution.

The country needed new heroes. Ones who were no longer exclusively pale and male. Heroes who, looking to the future, would not just unite the present, but heal a divided past.

The making of a legend

There were many individual moments since his 2004 debut that ensured Amla’s place in South Africa’s sporting Valhalla. The 149 he scored at Newlands in 2006 on his return to the side after being dropped. The 176 not out he scored almost a year later against the Black Caps at the Wanderers, which he rates as one of his favourite knocks – again when he felt he was under pressure to perform or be dropped. The almost anti-Amla innings of 25 off 159 balls against Sri Lanka in 2014, which ensured South Africa drew the Colombo Test match to win the series. The record breaking triple-ton against England in 2012.

As James argues in the essay, What is Art?, cricket’s structures impose on its players both an individualism and a collectivism, “the part and the whole”, which ensures the batsman does not merely represent his side but becomes his side.

There is no more important exposition of Amla’s, and the Proteas’ transformative powers, than the two Test series wins Down Under against Australia. A country that has long represented sporting hostility for white South Africa, it had also become a symbol of their rejecting majority rule in their own country as they fled to Australia in droves after the end of apartheid.

It is in Australia where Amla and a newly forming Proteas would plant the defiant flag of a new South Africa – with all its complexities and contradictions, fractures and fatalisms, victories and vicissitudes.

In the summer of 2008, South Africa beat Australia at home, their first series loss since the West Indies had toured there in 1992-1993. At that stage, the South African team still very rarely played with more than three black players in the first XI – seemingly subscribing to some unwritten rule that any more would deplete the team’s “standards”.

But something was stirring. In the first match at the Waca in Perth, JP Duminy made his debut alongside Ntini and Amla as the team’s other black players and South Africa needed to chase down 413 in their final innings to win. At four wickets down, South Africa had 303 on the board when Duminy joined De Villiers at the crease. A few hours later, Duminy completed his maiden half-century by driving through cover and running three – the winning runs to ensure a six-wicket victory for South Africa. Amla had made useful contributions of 47 and 53.

But more than Amla’s individual performance, a new team was forming around him. At the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day, South Africa trounced Australia by nine wickets to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series. In South Africa reaching 459 for their first innings total, Duminy scored 166 runs, a portion of those during a remarkable ninth-wicket stand of 180 runs with fast bowler Dale Steyn (76). From the backwaters of Phalaborwa, Steyn was another anti-establishment figure emerging – with fire in his veins as opposed to the ice in Amla’s – into the national team and took a five-for in each innings of the match. Amla (30 not out) hit the winning runs as South Africa chased down 182 in their final innings to achieve their 11th Test win of the year and ensure 10 Test series victories in a row.

Igniting Protea Fire

The South Africans would lose the dead-rubber New Year’s Test match at Sydney and spurn the opportunity to become the No. 1 Test-playing nation in the world, but even then, a new team was cementing its identity. In the final innings, Smith came out to bat at No. 11 with a broken hand and almost salvaged a draw for his side. A nation was being seduced by a group of brave young men. A country’s pride had been buttressed against the Afro-pessimism that had seen its former sons and daughters resettle in a country now conquered in the cricket oval.

The South African national team had been wearing the protea on their chests – as opposed to the Springbok of the racist apartheid era – since 1996, six years after the country was allowed back into international cricket. But it was in 2010 when, according to Amla, the team really gave meaning to its symbolism.

“In 2010 we had a get-together as a team to try and understand what is a South African identity? What is the Proteas identity? What is the team’s identity? Because we had come out of isolation the history of SA cricket is not long, and it’s also divided, so I am sure the country didn’t even know,” he told me.

“We kind of unpacked it. We tried to understand, what is a South African, because the Proteas team has to be the identity of the South African people, it has to understand what South Africa has to be. That is the most important thing: What do you want for South Africa?”

With a new identity finally emerging from the ashes of apartheid under the captaincy of Smith, the Proteas began extending their domination. Playing away to England in 2012, they put “Empire” to the sword before beating Australia again, 0-1 in a three-match series.

For the first time since Test rankings had been introduced in 2003, the Proteas entered a Test match as the No. 1 team in the world. The match, at the Gabba in Brisbane, ended in a draw but saw Amla pass 5 000 Test runs. He made 104 and his 165-run partnership with Kallis (147) in the first innings entrenched the duo as South Africa’s most productive Test pairing.

The next match, a draw at Adelaide, included a superhuman rear-guard action by debutant Du Plessis who scored 78 in the first innings and 110 off 376 balls in the second. The usually aggressive De Villiers scored 33 runs off 220 balls in a heroic draw.

To Perth then. After lunch on day one, South Africa were reeling at 75-6. They recovered with Du Plessis again stiffening the team’s resolve with an unbeaten 78 to help the visitors recover to 225 all out. On a hard bouncy track, Australia were rolled over for 163 with Steyn picking up four wickets for a mere 40 runs.

South Africa went in to bat on day two and dominated. The third session closed with the Proteas on 230-2 after an exhilarating final session afternoon’s cricket when they scored at a buccaneering run rate of just over six runs an over with Smith (84) and Amla, poised on 99 at stumps, posting 178 runs for the second wicket. A 169 by De Villiers would ensure South Africa posted a total of 569 leaving Australia with 631 runs to chase down. But the second innings belonged to Amla, who converted his overnight score into a century early on the morning of day three, before cantering towards a final total of 196.

It was one of his most exquisite innings and, writing in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, Gideon Haigh described it thus: “Amla produced his finest innings of the tour, superbly organised and paced as always, but audacious too, manufacturing strokes, manipulating fields and generally running the show. He came down the wicket to the seamers, worked [spinner Nathan] Lyon to leg from outside off, and found unguarded areas square and fine. He was four runs from a double-century after 220 balls when – startlingly – he offered [fast bowler Mitchell] Johnson a return catch, and it was brilliantly taken.”

Australia were all out for 322 in their second innings ensuring a 309-run victory for Smith’s team. Consistently building on that success Down Under in 2008-2009, the individuals within the team had cemented an exciting new collectivism.

The Proteas had flowered.

The heady anticipation that followed South Africans every time they walked into Newlands, the Wanderers, Centurion, St George’s Park or Kingsmead to watch Smith’s brutal flaying of opposition attacks, Kallis’ dominating “big bat”, Amla’s serene elegance, AB’s innovation, Ntini’s exuberance, Steyn’s laser-like aggression or Philander’s precision was always going to be ephemeral. But that’s the nature of sport.

Great cricketers and great teams must come to pass. But like the Proteas on their chests, South African cricket must be reborn, again and again. For, as the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish observed in Here the Birds’ Journey Ends, the end of one’s travels merely expands the horizons of those who are to follow.

After us, the plants will grow and grow

over roads only we have walked and our obstinate steps inaugurated.

And we will etch on the final rocks, “Long live life, long live life,”

and fall into ourselves. And after us there’ll be a horizon for the new birds.

The horizons Hashim Mohammed Amla has left millions of children and adults he has inspired extend beyond the boundary of the cricket oval and into the imagination of a new country constantly wrestling with its traumatic past and fractious present. It is a view as unsettling as it is breathtaking.

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