Hashim Amla: Proteas Mr Dependable

It may have taken him time to settle but Hashim Amla is now in the form of his life with South Africa.

Hashim Amla has taken a liking to India’s bowling of late, scoring 630 runs and hitting four hundreds in the last three Test matches against them. The South African will be hoping to continue that rich vein of form when the second Test begins today in Durban.
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At Durban Boys' High School, which counts the great Barry Richards among its alumni, Hashim Amla captained the cricket team while still in year nine. Yet, though a prodigy of sorts, he was fortunate to be raised in a family whose ambition never warped his development.

When we spoke on the eve of his Test debut at Kolkata's Eden Gardens six years ago, Amla told me: "There were never excessive expectations from my parents, whether it was schoolwork or cricket. My father always used to say, 'If you don't want to go to practice, don't go. It's up to you'."

On Boxing Day, the journey that started with intense backyard games against brother Ahmed at the family home in Tongaat will see him play his 50th Test in front of his home crowd. It has not been a happy venue for him in international cricket, with a 69 against West Indies three years ago his only score of note in five Tests there.

He had struggled on debut in India and was dropped soon after twin failures against England at the end of 2004.

"I'm not sure," he told me with a half-smile when asked if he imagined himself with 50 caps in those early days. "Ät that stage, I don't think I was looking past the next game."

Over the last three years, a period in which he has made the No 3 slot his own and replaced Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting as Mr Dependable in that most pivotal of batting positions, Amla has averaged 56.77 while making nine hundreds in 32 Tests.

More importantly, he has been part of a line-up that has triumphed away from home in England and Australia and twice held the lead before finishing all square in India.

Being part of a prolific top six has helped his own game blossom and he now bats with a fluency that is worlds apart from the skittishness that Stephen Harmison and friends exploited in his first series on home soil.

"I've been fortunate to come in to bat in good positions like in the last game when we were 111 when I went out to bat," he says.

"An opening partnership like that allows you to begin your innings when the bowlers are a bit more tired and operating in short spells.

"With Jacques [Kallis] and AB [de Villiers] also doing well, it does give me a bit of freedom here and there. At the end of the day, it's about trying to get in. Some days it takes a bit longer, some days it happens quickly. But the top order batting well does allow you to score a bit quicker and put some pressure on the opposition."

For Amla, no opposition holds the same appeal as India, the land of his forefathers. He politely brushes off the suggestion that he has the measure of the Indian attack, but the numbers suggest just that, with 630 runs and four hundreds in his last three Tests against them.

"I don't think it's just the Indian bowlers," said Gary Kirsten, India's coach, when asked about Amla's tremendous appetite for runs.

"He is a quality batsman, as is Sachin Tendulkar who has scored seven centuries this year. They know what they are doing. We need to come out with strategies or plans to get him out." With rain most evenings and a well-grassed but hard pitch, this Durban Test could be quite a test of a batsman's skill.

"I've been very fortunate growing up on this wicket, with the bounce and the pace," says Amla. "I'm not sure how the Test wicket is going to play, but on a good day, when it's flat, it's a fantastic place to play. The outfield's small and the boundaries are short and you get fantastic value for shots."

He's well aware that India traditionally get strong support in Durban, but with one of their own now in Protea colours, the local community will have divided loyalties. As for Amla, who is seldom anything but calm, nothing will be left to chance.

"The mood is quite positive after the win at Centurion," he says. "Very rarely is there any complacency and people are putting in as much hard work, if not more, coming up to this Test."

The man who typifies that work ethic has come a long way since the days when he looked a little lost in the cauldron of the Eden Gardens.