Amla changes everything, except himself

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg

II’S 11.18am at the Wanderers on Thursday and the moment is upon us. A careful walk down the awkwardly shallow and long stairs in the tunnel, a step into Joburg’s warming sunshine and another across the boundary, and here he is: “Ladies and gentlemen! Hashim! Amla!”

The crowd, a smidgen of the size it might have been given a weekend day, a series that was still alive, and had Rory McIlroy not been playing in the South African Open at Glendower, make as much noise as they dare.

Amla has taken this journey on grounds around the world 168 times since his first at Eden Gardens in November 2004.

But No. 169 is different, even though he has spent days trying to ensure it is the same as all the others.

“I wanted my focus to be as pure as possible, no side attractions, razzmatazz,” Amla would say later. “I had a more important thing and that was to try and work on my game with the least distractions possible.”

Now, further from the cocoon of the dressingroom with each step he takes but closer in spirit to the supporters who have sent their hearts to the middle with him for 12 years, Amla is stripped of all defences against invasions of self.

He is about to take guard in his 100th test, a feat only seven South Africans out of the 65 who had done so in the history of the game could claim as their own …

It’s 11.25am on Friday and another moment is upon us. Amla is making his way back from whence he came having quelled concerns over his form by scoring a century for the ages, an innings gritty with substance and, in its second half, glitzy with style.

In the 24 hours and seven minutes that pass between Amla’s coming and his going, little seems to have changed beyond his beard growing half-a-millimetre or so.

You might say something similar about Amla’s entire test career. He is, besides a hint of grey in that famous beard, the man he’s always been. Isn’t he? 

“He’s still the same,” Phil Russell, who was credited by Amla as “my batting coach”, said.

“He’s got much stronger, of course – physically, mentally, everything.”   

Amla said he had “touched base” with Russell after his struggles on South Africa’s tour to Australia in November.

“We did a bit of work and I’ve got some runs to thank him with,” Amla said.

Russell, a dyed in the wool man of cricket and Derbyshire stalwart, declined the gift ever so politely.

“We had a chat and then I put a few balls in the bowling machine,” he said. “Class players always sort it out themselves. I’m just part of the process.”

What did they tinker with?

“It’s everything. Touring’s hard work. It’s just wear and tear and one-day cricket; you change a bit of our technique and then you have to realise it’s changed too much.”

South African cricket, too, has changed much since Amla played his first test. For instance, Justin Ontong and Amla are the only members of that side who are still active at high level. 

But the most important change of the Amla era is cultural, and in more ways than one.

There is in the team now far more respect and experience of a faith and way of life that would have been alien to most of that 2004 side.

Then there’s Amla’s “voice of calm”, as Stephen Cook calls it, which has been an important factor in South Africa growing into an assured team who know what they want and, increasingly, how to get it.

What did Russell think all those years ago when Amla, then a skinny schoolboy, brought his skew backlift to the Kingsmead nets?

“I thought it was Bradman,” he said.

Don’t change that, whatever you do.

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