Egoless Amla breaks captaincy mould

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

WANTED: gung-ho, goal-driven go-getter who will use any creative means necessary to lead and succeed under the most extreme pressure known to sport. Noisy confidence will be the successful candidate’s winning edge. Must have licence to drive, as well as cut, pull and sweep.

If Cricket SA had asked a recruitment agency to find Graeme Smith’s successor as SA’s test captain, the classified ad might have looked something like the above.

Except for the last bit of that gumph, none of it sounds like a job fit for Hashim Amla – he of the diffident, egoless persona who seems more serious than savvy.

But, eight matches into his tenure, Amla has yet to preside over a loss and half of his tests in charge have been won by SA. Better yet, he has shown aggression and creativity to venture so far, so good.

When SA won Amla’s first test at the helm, against Sri Lanka in Galle in July last year, they took a giant leap towards only their second victory in five series there and their first in almost 21 years.

When West Indies were dismissed 351 runs behind in Centurion in December, Amla had his first opportunity to enforce the follow-on. He took it, and SA won by an innings and 220 runs.

When Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander failed to make headway against Bangladesh in Chittagong last month, Amla tossed a ball just 13 overs to Stiaan van Zyl – who took a wicket with his second delivery.

If we didn’t know better we might think Amla has been captaining for years. The truth is he has.

In 2002 Amla took SA to the final of the under-19 World Cup for the first time. At 21 he was captaining the Dolphins.

One of Amla’s predecessors at Kingsmead, Dale Benkenstein, saw him grow into a fine player and leader.

“He has a brilliant cricket brain, but he was always asking questions,” Benkenstein said. “He was learning on the job, I suppose.”

But Amla’s stint as Dolphins captain lasted just nine first-class and six limited overs games. After scoring two centuries in his first three innings, he passed 50 only three times in his next 18 knocks.

“He felt he had to work on his game, that he needed to focus on his batting, and he didn’t want captaincy to get in the way of that,” Benkenstein said.

Amla’s indifferent current form in one-day cricket, where he has gone seven innings without a half-century, will make some wonder whether history wasn’t repeating itself.

Not Benkenstein: “He’s had four years of unbelievably good form. The captaincy can take the focus off your game but he’s only one innings away from being back in form.”

In fact, Amla has been a more successful batsman as a captain. In his 84 tests overall he averages 52.48. Before he was promoted he averaged 51.35. Although he has had only 10 innings since he took over, the leap his average has made in those matches is too big to ignore: all the way up to 69.50.

Benkenstein saw no contradiction between the silent strength of Amla the batsman and the rasping readiness of Amla the captain to take the game to the opposition.

“Part of making a success of captaincy is tactical but most of it is having the respect of your players, and Hashim has had that from a very young age,” he said. “He has a lot of playing experience now and that will make him comfortable with most situations.”

Amla is the fifth man to be appointed to lead SA in tests since Kepler Wessels walked out of the dressingroom and onto Kensington Oval in Barbados one fine April day in 1992 to begin the post-isolation era.

Skipper number six will have Amla to thank for making the job description that much more demanding.

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