Twitches of Hashim Amla's bat can do a fine turn
On the first day of Hashim Amla's 14th Test he played a pretty significant little innings of 71 against Pakistan in Karachi.
It was only his fifth half-century and one chance apart, an unfussy knock that set South Africa on their way to an important win that would eventually herald a golden period.
At the time Amla was just beginning to settle into the South African top order after a false start during the winter of 2004.
When he appeared in front of the press at the end of that day, a glow of such tranquillity and geniality on his visage almost unparalleled among modern cricketers, the first question he was asked was whether he was fasting.
It was Ramadan and Amla, a Muslim cricketer of Indian descent playing for South Africa, was in Pakistan where religion is never far from discussion.
Five years later Amla is now a crucial component of a strong side, perhaps the best in the world.
He has spent the weekend showing the world just how fine a batsman he is against England.
It is Ramadan again and so one of the points of informal discussion - actually queries, whispered like it might be offensive to ask but nobody is really sure - was whether or not he was fasting.
Amla's faith and ethnicity do not define him completely but they sometimes tend to distract from just how good he has become.
It is probably unavoidable in South Africa that he is a figure of symbolic significance as equally - if not more - as he is just a sportsman; that is just to acknowledge South Africa's past and its present.
And to some extent it happens to every sportsman.
In the search to humanise uber-beings - if we think of athletes as such - to make them accessible and understandable, we want these details, a backstory to explain how and why they are who they are.
But this weekend, as he delicately steered the game away from England, just watching Amla the batsman was arresting enough without needing to wonder about Amla the devout South African Muslim of Indian descent, because few top batsmen give bowlers the sense they are in the game like Amla.
If you watch long enough the bat looks fragile in his hands. Not puny like it did in the hands of big men such as Matthew Hayden, or does in the hands of Amla's captain Graeme Smith, but fragile, aware suddenly of just how inadequate a device it is in defending the three sticks behind it.
Bats are broader and heavier than ever today, with bigger edges but Amla's looks like something from the past, narrower somehow, less edged (it is probably neither). That imagined visual is key to enjoying Amla for it sustains the implication of equality in the fight between bat and ball.
It makes his game appear riskier and more fallible than it probably is, as if any ball just now might catch an edge or sneak past the bat because it is so thin.
When others such as Jacques Kallis or Kumar Sangakkara or Sachin Tendulkar make double hundreds for example, their mastery can induce a numbness of experience after a while, where there is no hope ever that they will get out and that the balance that is cricket's eternal striving, between bat and ball, can never be restored.
With Amla on the other hand the sense of domination never presents itself.
Instead, every ball he brings home the reductive and absolute truth that all batsmen must come to terms with: you're only as good as the last ball you survived.
Maybe the impression remains from the early years of his entry into international cricket, when he looked no good because he survived no balls.
He struggled against the short ball, got caught on the front foot too often, had too high and too crooked a backlift; in short, as the late Peter Roebuck wrote: "His game looked about as well organised as a bowl of spaghetti."
Changes were made before his return but thankfully his batting retains some of that spaghetti disorder, important in a game that can cling stubbornly to a glorified orthodoxy.
His reactions to the ball still do not look like processed movements in a progression of straight lines (though on those super slow motion replays he can look quite correct, if that is the right word).
Some shots, through point especially, are not shots as much as they are simple flexes. All batting is reflexive, of course, just trained to not look so.
But Amla's muscle twitches do not look taught as much as conceived, simply and startlingly, in the mind of some arch stylist.
So did it matter that his triple hundred was made while he was fasting? Would it enhance the innings if he was?
"If you're a good Muslim you should know the answer to that question," was his response that day in Karachi.
In other words, the questions do have answers but they matter to Amla and Amla alone.
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Published: July 22, 2012 04:00 AM