Hashim Amla signs autographs for fans
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The rainbow beauty of Hashim Amla

Hashim Amla is an extraordinary batsman. He is also the living embodiment of a nation trying to express itself while healing

Niren Tolsi  |  

The batsman facing the ball does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is his side. This fundamental relation of The One and the Many, Individual and Social, Individual and Universal, leader and followers, representative and ranks, the part and the whole, is structurally imposed on the players of cricket. - CLR James, "What is Art?"

The end of 2015 had been an especially shitty summer for South Africans. December had started with President Jacob Zuma attempting a grab at the national treasury, resulting in the farce of three finance ministers in less than a week. The currency plummeted, billions were wiped off the stock exchange and people's savings tonked. For a country left dispirited and anxious by a political betrayal, cricket only confirmed a receding self-esteem.

The consequences of one of several kleptocratic moves by Zuma and his cronies were evident during the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy series against England. At the cricket grounds Poms, skins ripened pink by their escape from the English winter and the daily sun-drenched sessions of quaffing beer, gloated over the latter costing 20 pence a pint. Some middle-aged white Englishmen were sat, beaming and garrulous, next to muted young black women, marvelling at their "value for money" jaunt and the incomparable tenderness of last night's steaks.

The Proteas were dismal in the Boxing Day Test match in Durban, losing by 241 runs. Dale Steyn picked up another injury in a stop-start year and AB de Villiers, recently reinstalled as wicketkeeper, made ill-timed complaints about his workload in the middle of a Test match. Former captain Graeme Smith, working as a commentator, added to the unease by suggesting that all was not right in the dressing room.

On the field, Hashim Amla, the Test captain - the first "black" South African to be more than a stop-gap in the position - continued a glitch in an otherwise imperious career-long run of form, scoring 7 and 12 at his former provincial ground.

"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 South Africa to be?"

The South African media had cast Amla as the "reluctant captain" of a dressing room that was in transition after the retirements of Smith and Jacques Kallis, and in callow panic after losing a series in India 3-0 earlier in the season. On dustbowl wickets straight out of a John Steinbeck novel, the Proteas lost a decade-long unbeaten run on foreign shores and a large measure of their nervelessness for the rest of the summer.

By his own admission, Amla is someone who is always thinking about the game. "When I am on the field, even during Graeme's captaincy I would go over and give my opinion and how I feel or view the game - whatever little perspective I have - and that keeps me in the game a little bit," he tells the Cricket Monthly.

He had captained Durban High School (DHS) and representative sides including the KwaZulu-Natal Dolphins provincial team and the South Africa Under-19 and senior one-day sides. He had agreed to avail himself when, following Smith's retirement in 2014, "a few senior guys came to me and said: 'Hashim, why don't you put your name in?' So I started to contemplate it and I thought, 'Well, why not?' I enjoyed it. Definitely one of the highlights of my international career was captaining South Africa."

Yet, Amla was a "reluctant" captain.

In the hyper-masculine, race-obsessed world of South Africa and the cricket it plays, white cultural hegemony remains in control. Words are often more loaded than a full metal jacket. Especially when used by a media that has never been very "woke" in their thoughts or imagination. Many journalists consider transformation a synonym for political and administrative meddling in team selection. "Merit" equals white players. "Quotas" equals black players perceived to be inadequate and only in the team because of their skin colour.

"Reluctant" was a word heavy with insinuation and stereotyping. It suggested that Amla, despite a pedigree grounded in the exclusive South African schools system that continues to churn out national team cricketers (and some England caps), carried an institutional deficiency in his make-up.

Where his predecessor, Smith, was a burly boytjie (slang for "jock"), Amla was svelte and effete - as Indians are, apparently. The unreconstructed parts of the media and the public didn't believe he was manly, or robust, enough, to lead a national team that had historically distrusted those who are cerebral and measured of speech. Certainly not someone who uses the word "ephemeral" to describe the transience of batting records.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Although thoroughly elegant in his gluttonous accumulation of runs, Amla was unable to escape racial stereotyping. He was not quite (white) South African enough to advance a team that, traditionally, had played an often dour, conservative, and on occasion brutalist, version of the game, premised on the white tragedy of Anglo-Boer wars and the laager mentality of a community - even today - feeling it is constantly under siege by the swart gevaar (the black danger).

Despite coming from within the cricketing establishment, Amla was not of it. A second-generation South African with Indian heritage, he was a Muslim in a team that had traditionally asked, "What would Jesus do?" He was difficult to pigeonhole as he disrupted the easy binaries of Good-versus-Evil and Black-and-White. In the on-air words of Dean Jones in 2006, Amla was a "terrorist". He remained the Other.

The pressure on the South African team and its captain mounted during that England series. A noisy country on a brief holiday from fighting with itself resumed hostilities in the new year when, on the first day of 2016, a real-estate agent made comments on social media about "black monkeys" usurping Durban's beaches. South Africans returned to chucking turds from the pot at the end of Nelson Mandela's failing rainbow nationalism. Our democracy was flailing. The country's innate, misguided, sense of exceptionalism was fading.

It was the worst of times.

At Newlands, Ben Stokes bludgeoned 258 runs from 198 balls. After lunch on the second day England declared on 629 for 6. In the third over of their first innings South Africa were 7 for 1.

Amla crossed over the boundary and took guard. The cacophony from all the currents that swirl beneath South African cricket and society - race-based quotas and racism, notions of white supremacy, Afro-pessimism and the constant denial of white privilege, identity politics and lasting socio-economic inequality, social-media trolling and loud-mouthed vacuity - was relentless, deafening.

"When Temba got that hundred, it was not a surprise to me because I knew this guy is a quality player. I didn't need convincing, but others certainly did"

Then, the calm of a ball left alone. And another. Followed by the quietness of a ball defended. And another. And another.

Over three days and 707 minutes at the crease Amla scored 201 off 477 balls. He left anything outside his off stump, but still slayed enough deliveries to accumulate 27 fours. He defended doggedly. A typically South African innings played by an aesthetically atypical South African batsman. The kind of response to the context of a match that he had previously demonstrated when South Africa won the 2014 Test series in Sri Lanka by drawing the second Test in Colombo. Then, Amla had scored 25 runs off 159 balls. Likewise, during the valiant, failed, blockathons against India in Nagpur and Delhi in 2015.

Then Temba Bavuma became the first black African to score a Test century for the Proteas with an unbeaten 102 - a seminal achievement. South Africa declared two runs short of England's mammoth total. The match ended in a redemptive draw. After it, Amla resigned as captain. Serious, sincere, he said: "I gave it my best shot and I have thoroughly enjoyed it."

Like bursts of muffled AK-47 machine-gun fire, the sound of automatic high-speed camera shutters rang out every time Amla looked up from his prepared statement. They did not mask the collective gasp of a country left confused. He had redeemed himself as captain, and batsman, and yet decided to step down.

The paradoxes of representation inherent in South African cricket were manifest at Newlands. Both Amla and Bavuma did not represent their side, they were their sides. They were their country. A divided, fractious country, obsessed with race and class and riven by a staggering inequality that keeps more than half the population living in poverty. Equally, a country generous of spirit, determined in action and resilient against adversity.

During our interview, Amla admits that "being a bit older now, I can see how other players go through these difficulties [of racism masked as cricketing criticism], and I went through a similar thing… When Temba got that hundred, it was not a surprise to me because I knew this guy is a quality player. It was a nice feeling to know that other people knew it now. I didn't need convincing, but others certainly did."

First triple-century by a South African in Tests? That would be Amla, at The Oval in 2012

First triple-century by a South African in Tests? That would be Amla, at The Oval in 2012 © AFP

This is the burden that "black" South African cricketers of black African, Indian or mixed-race descent face every time they run up to the wicket or take guard at the crease. They are playing for their team, and their country, but they are also fighting against racial stereotypes and prejudices that linger long after apartheid's demise.

In person, Hashim Amla is profoundly normal. His laugh is easy and his humour dry, tinged with the penchant for gently sardonic ribbing that boys growing up in the small sugar-plantation towns on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast hone while playing sport in the street or loafing about. He can "choon".

I tell him that I am from Stanger, a sugar and paper-milling town an hour away from Durban, and he chuckles that it is "more of a farm" than his own home town of Tongaat, which is midway between the two. The playful suggestion is that I am the bigger country bumpkin. Behind the rimless spectacles his eyes are merry and teasing.

Now 34, Amla possesses an enthusiasm for cricket that is both schoolboy and scholarly. It is a "passion", which still catches him playing street cricket with the kids outside the local mosque near his parents' home in the Durban suburb of Umhlanga. It is a love for the sport that compelled him, at the WACA in 2012, to ask Ricky Ponting after his final Test, "Can I hug you?" To which Punter replied, "Of course you can, mate."

"I'm still a kid, I'm still 18, you know," says Amla, laughing about the incident.

"At club level and at certain times in professional cricket... The more I look back, I think 'Actually, ja, you know [the racism] was crazy"

"What a legend batsman. He batted three for Australia and I'm just batting three [in 2012]. I watched him, the way he dominated, and I just really loved the way he played, so his last game - I had been privileged to play a few matches against him and watched him smash a couple of hundreds against us here and there - so when it was his last game, I was happy he got out because we won the Test match, but I was sad because I won't be watching this absolutely wonderful batsman ever again. Ja. So. Ricky Ponting, hey…" He is lost for a few seconds in wistful reverie.

Steve Waugh and Brian Lara were two batsmen Amla says he "used to permanently watch" as a kid. A combination of the delightful and the rugged that Amla exhibits in his own batting. "They had contrasting styles of play. Lara you would pay whatever amounts to watch. I dunno, I have never seen a player like him. You got taught to hit half-volleys off the front foot, but he hit them off the back foot - West Indian style. He was just beautiful to watch, the way he dominated games. Whereas with Steve Waugh you got the sense that he valued his wicket more than his life itself. He got in line, took it on the body in tough situations. That I enjoyed as well. Stubborn, you know?"

Even with his feet propped up on the hotel coffee table between us, Amla rarely lets his guard down. He is serious about his cricket, single-mindedly so. On the record, he plays with a straight bat, sometimes courteously lapsing into the anodyne responses of the modern media-trained cricketer, to avoid controversy and "distractions". The latter, a word he uses often to point out he is "just a cricketer" who "tries to score runs" and is not looking to ferment unnecessary media ruction.

"I enjoy history, but I am not a historian. I enjoy philosophy but I am not a philosopher… When I am finished thinking about facing a ball at 150kph, and then only, maybe I will start thinking about those distractions," he ultimately says to a series of questions about cricket's potential to subvert colonial legacies and whether the South African media suffered a crisis of imagination - because of his appearance and what it meant - when he first broke into the international scene in 2004.

The Other among us: though he has been embraced by fans, Amla is still viewed by many as an outsider

The Other among us: though he has been embraced by fans, Amla is still viewed by many as an outsider © Getty Images

He doesn't believe he can "change or control the thoughts of other people… So I don't try too hard," he says of the Islamophobic and anti-Indian slurs he has endured over the years.

"I try and be who I like to be and let the rest take care of itself. I can't change people's perceptions, people's prejudices. The word prejudice itself comes from 'prejudge', so if people want to prejudge, so be it…"

On how he self-identifies, Amla asks: "Why box yourself? I'm a father. I'm a son. I am a brother. I am a South African… with heritage from India. Those are just the simple things…"

When the tape recorder is turned off, he reveals a thinker who grapples with the gravitas of what it means to be South African, and one who plays cricket for a country not fully transformed. All this, and more, Amla promises, will be explored in greater detail when he retires and writes his autobiography.

He does, however, enthuse about CLR James' classic Beyond a Boundary, which he picked up from a West Indian friend during his first stint in the Caribbean Premier League in 2016.

He describes a "massive interest in West Indian cricket" sparked by the 2010 documentary Fire in Babylon, that "made me really understand how conscious they were of South Africa's struggle and the apartheid struggle, and that was so lovely to hear - that those people, and those countries were so passionate [about ending apartheid], you can only wish that most countries now would exhibit that same level of humanity."

When Amla made his Test debut at Eden Gardens against India in 2004, his technique - the backlift that swirls out to gully - was questioned as much as his sense of nationalism.

The black cricketing histories were proud but materially impoverished. At DHS Amla would have what those who lived with extinguished black hope never did: opportunity

Amla's grandparents had come to South Africa not with the waves of Indian indentured labourers that the British empire had brought to the sugarcane fields from 1860 onwards but with the merchants, preachers and intellectual classes that would follow from Gujarat.

Toiling in the sugarcane fields was a more brutal existence than keeping shop or interpreting scripture: class, religion and caste sometimes provided a flimsy buffer against the violence of colonialism and apartheid. But only just. The general levels of oppression and dehumanisation meted out by the English or the Afrikaner to "the Indian" remained uniform. Likewise the community was blindly, and conveniently, reduced to homogeneity from 1860 until today, despite fractures, overlaps, contradictory commonalities, discrepancies and differences within.

This reductiveness prevented many in the South African media from seeing Amla's emergence into the Test side as the successful result of a post-apartheid middle-class experiment. Instead, he was still considered "the Indian".

He had to reassure journalists that "my blood runs with the green of South Africa" during that first tour of India. He scored 24 and 2 on debut, was out of the next Test, against England at home, played two more in that series, and was then dropped for over a year, his average 10.33.

Yet Amla's technique was sound. Batting technique was woven into institutions like his alma mater, DHS.

"In a bowler's development, I don't think it makes that much of a difference," he says. "Most of the top bowlers in South Africa don't necessarily have to go to a top cricketing school, because their development happens later, whereas in batting, you have got to have the good coaching and then the upbringing of batting, because it is almost a complicated thing, you gotta almost have that tutorship through good schools and good coaching."

Amla admits that his brother Ahmed, older by four years and a provincial batsman, was "definitely the better sportsman, in all the sports" they played as kids, but was too old by the time the "New South Africa's" opportunities came around.

Ahmed Amla matriculated at the formerly all-Indian Tongaat Secondary School, historically one of the best sporting schools in the province for black scholars, before the integration that allowed his younger brother to attend DHS. In a 2009 interview with ESPNcricinfo, Ahmed explained what this meant:

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"When I went to school, I only played with the Indian kids. You had separate exams, the whites had separate exams. The integration hadn't occurred yet. But when Hash came along, the system had changed so rapidly. That really helped him. He studied in an integrated school, played with and against white and other coloured kids. It does have a huge impact on the personality."

Together with Imraan Khan, who played one Test for South Africa, the younger Amla was spotted as a 12-year-old when the KwaZulu-Natal Cricket Union (KZNCU) began expanding its catchment area for youngsters into rural towns in 1995. His father, Mohamed, a medical general practitioner, would drive him twice a week for practice in Durban: first making the hour-long round trip during his lunch break, and then again in the evening to pick his son up. One of many "sacrifices" that, cumulatively, Amla considers "probably all my cricketing success is down to".

Following the unbanning of anti-apartheid political organisations and Nelson Mandela's release in 1990, the process of unifying sports bodies that represented the different race groups during apartheid had begun in earnest. The African National Congress (ANC), the presumptive leaders of a democratic South Africa, had identified sport, and international participation, as a nation-building tool for moulding a racially cohesive new country.

There was a rush towards unification to allow for readmission, despite the reservations of radical organisations like the non-racial umbrella sports body South African Council of Sport (SACOS), which had argued the premature readmission of national teams into international competition would not guarantee a levelling of the playing fields or fast-track the development of black sportspeople, who had historically played in impoverished conditions. There could be "no normal sport in an abnormal [unequal] society," SACOS maintained.

A prescient perspective. Socioeconomic conditions in contemporary South Africa ensure that young, poor black cricketers remain disadvantaged in terms of training and playing facilities, coaching, equipment and diet. With the exception of fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam, the overwhelming majority of black cricketers who have been capped at Test level for South Africa - from Makhaya Ntini through Amla to Bavuma - have emerged through a system of elite, former whites-only schools like St Stithians, King Edward High School, Dale College and DHS.

Founded in 1866, DHS is the kind of red-bricked British schooling legacy that one finds in the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, and in other parts of Africa. A place where the vestiges of Victorian tradition still exist in the hallways. During the lunch break, boys stop munching sandwiches to stand to attention and greet visitors with a sharp "Good morning, sir!" The school's high-performance cricket facility would not be found wanting by the Proteas. While Ahmed Amla would have used the multipurpose municipal grounds across the busy main road from Tongaat Secondary to play cricket, his younger brother needed only to gaze from a classroom window at the pristine DHS first-team pitch to visualise the runs he scored with such alacrity as a schoolboy.

In the vein of superstar nomenclature, where the greats, like Prince or Picasso, dispense with additional names, DHS is merely referred to as "School". It has a proud cricketing tradition, evident on its honours board, which lists over 30 international players, going back to George Shepstone in 1896, and including Trevor Goddard, Hugh Tayfield, Barry Richards and Lance Klusener. Amla would become DHS's first black cricketer to play Test cricket.

When Amla made his Test debut at Eden Gardens against India in 2004, his technique was questioned as much as his sense of nationalism

DHS was where the values and seemingly esoteric aspects of batting became second nature to Amla, and, according to his former cricket master, Alan Norton, a "bit of staal [steel]" was added to his mentality.

At the end of racial segregation Norton had moved to play club cricket at Pirates-Kismet where the 13-year-old Amla was playing in the junior side. Pirates-Kismet was a club born at post-apartheid unification by the amalgamation of two storied non-racial clubs, Kismet and Pirates of India, which were founded in the early 1900s. It was Norton who encouraged Amla, then attending the formerly Indians-only Tongaat Primary School, to join DHS. He did so in 1997. In 1999 and 2000, he captained the first team and scored runs with prodigious abandon.

Amla says he benefited from playing with Ahmed and his friends - players much older than him. "That exposes you to things beyond your years and was very important for me." His uncles were club cricketers, "the be-all and end-all of cricket in those days", when apartheid's colour ceiling limited aspiration. His early years were rooted in the long, deep traditions of "Indian" and non-racial cricket which went back over a century. The exploits of players like Jesse Chellan, Yacoob Omar, Ashraf Mall and the Govender brothers Jugoo and Child, permeated this world. As, equally, did those of Jonty Rhodes and Andrew Hudson, who both played for KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa.

The black cricketing histories were proud, but materially impoverished. At DHS, Amla would have what those who lived with extinguished black hope never did: opportunity, access to some of the best facilities in the country, and detailed coaching.

He attributes his development at DHS to Norton and another cricket master, Geoff Mace, who died in Amla's final year at school. "Geoff Mace was a poet, an English teacher, and he was very charismatic - I really spent a wonderful time learning from him. Mr Mace wasn't technical about the game, but he was insightful about it, and I took a lot of benefit from that. With Alan I took a lot of benefit in terms of the technical aspects and maybe the hardness of the game, because that was his personality. Those two guys were influential for us as coaches."

In 2000, his final year at DHS, Amla scored 972 runs at an average of 57.18 and top-scored in 11 of 18 matches. He won the school's SuperStriker award for the most runs scored and the Chris Catto award for "the greatest contribution to cricket". In the end-of-year review in the school magazine, Norton described Amla as a "superb and gifted batsman who seems to make batting look fairly easy. He scores runs at will and the best aspect about his batting is his mature mental approach… An astute captain who was not scared to speak his mind and do what was right for the team and not the individual."

That year Amla also captained the KwaZulu-Natal A team and was included in the South African Schools XI and South African U-19 teams.

Hash > Viv? Amla holds the ODI records for being the fastest to 4000 runs and to 25 centuries

Hash > Viv? Amla holds the ODI records for being the fastest to 4000 runs and to 25 centuries © Gallo Images/Getty Images

He scoffs at the notion of being destined for greatness. "It's always a combination of things. There is always an element of hard work, that is without a doubt. Some sacrifices you have to make in terms of your time, family sacrifices. The talent factor that God has given to everyone, there is always a bit of that. And then good coaches - I have been fortunate to always have good coaches. It's a combination of everything coming together."

His recollection of his time at DHS is an idyllic one of camaraderie and cricket. His assimilation was no doubt helped by his ability with the bat. He played with guys "of different races and from different backgrounds" for whom "sport was a major unifying factor".

But the world of elite school sports was a bubble, far removed from the racial fractures of a new country where old ideas still flourished.

Kingsmead, Durban, 1998. A young Shoaib Akhtar blasts out five South Africans for his first Test five-for. With every wicket the sound of almost hysterical celebrations can be heard from a bunch of kids bussed in for the day from their working-class schools. They are not supporting South Africa, an all-white team reflecting the failures of transformation in the sport.

Racial tensions were felt acutely in cricket grounds in 1990s South Africa. Kingsmead was a daunting place for the South African team to play, as large pockets of supporters cheered on everybody but those that purported to represent them. In many people's eyes the team still represented the old order. A United Cricket Board of South Africa (now Cricket South Africa) report found that anti-South African sentiment in Durban was "even worse" than what the team experienced while touring Australia.

In that Durban Test, Pat Symcox verbally abused spectators. Fanie de Villiers and the team trainer Paddy Upton were also involved in an altercation with spectators. Upton was fined and de Villiers given a warning.

Cricket was being politically contested at every level. At junior level, black bowlers were included in representative teams but never called into the attack. At club and school level racism was overt in the sledging and general behaviour of white cricketers and administrators. At provincial level the former South Africa allrounder Brian McMillan told a team-mate to bowl a "coolie creeper" to opponent Ashraf Mall during a 1999 match between Western Province and KwaZulu-Natal. "Coolie" has more profound racist connotations in South Africa than it does in India. McMillan dismissed the outrage that followed as "a load of crap".

"Why box yourself? I'm a father. I'm a son. I am a brother. I am a South African with heritage from India. Those are just the simple things"

Later in the same Pakistan tour, the Non-Aligned Movement in Cricket organised a protest against the somnambulist pace of transformation in the sport. Former SACOS sportsmen and administrators like Sadha Govender and Vishnu Tewary were at Kingsmead, under a new multimillion-rand scoreboard, with placards denouncing the marginalisation of black cricket development.

"We fought for decades to achieve non-racial sport played on levelled fields, but unification only sidelined and even destroyed black sports structures," Tewary told me at the time. "We had to take a stand, we had to be brave and tell the 'boers' [whites] and their stooges that we have a history and a tradition of cricket which must not be denied - which must be developed."

Such fire and fracture is the backdrop against which Amla's burgeoning talent was developed. After describing his trouble-free time at the DHS, he provides a caveat that underlines the racism he personally faced:

"I'll say this: you go through your difficulties, and most of the difficulties I experienced was after school… At club level and at certain times in professional cricket, certainly growing up and earlier on, the more naïve you are to these things, the more I look back, I think, 'Actually, ja, you know [the racism] was crazy," he says, declining to give examples.

In the chaotic, overlapping and contradictory world of South African identity politics Amla is both visible and invisible. His Muslim beard is reminiscent of WG Grace. His luxurious leg-side flicks and imperious punches off the back foot stand above the limitations of some team-mates. He has, over his career, won over the white cricketing public and media which initially labelled him a technically unsound quota player, but he will probably never be as lauded as Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers or Graeme Pollock.

It is in the realm "of ideas as well as facts" James writes in Beyond A Boundary, that the answer to his pestilential question, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" resides. White South Africa has struggled to stretch its imagination with sufficient empathy and tolerance to understand Amla - and Rabada, Ngam, Bavuma and others.

At Newlands in 2016, Amla made a double-century and stepped down from the captaincy after the Test

At Newlands in 2016, Amla made a double-century and stepped down from the captaincy after the Test © Getty Images

The country's cricket writers linger in narrow stereotypes and unrecognised prejudices in their lazy miscomprehension of Amla and the Indian community. An example, by the British-born Peter Roebuck, who lived and worked in South Africa for a while: "the Indians tended to lie low" and "concentrated on making money" because they were "shy by nature", "resourceful by disposition" and caught in "a racial no-man's land" during apartheid. A view that negates the trauma of a people as much as it muffles their historical agency. Yet one pervasive even among the more progressive parts of South African society.

In the case of Amla, the facts speak for themselves. In becoming the fastest batsman to reach 3000 runs in ODIs, he required 12 fewer innings (57) than Viv Richards, a regal, brutal flayer of bowlers and misconceptions of white supremacy. In becoming the fastest batsman to score 4000 one-day runs, he required seven innings fewer than Richards. Early last year he required 11 innings fewer than India's captain, Virat Kohli, in becoming the fastest cricketer to score 25 centuries in ODIs. At The Oval in 2012, he became the first - and as yet, only - South African to score a Test triple-century, with an unbeaten 311 against England. At the Wanderers last January he played his 100th Test match. Pulling himself out of a slump, he scored a commanding 134 off 265 balls against Sri Lanka in a match South Africa won by an innings and 118 runs.

To ignore what these exploits mean for a team, and a country, struggling to form a new identity after the social and economic wreckage inflicted by apartheid exposes a rigidly conformist mentality among sections of the South African media and public.

Amla believes that the Proteas' cricketing identity and style of play is evolving towards expression. "Your perceptions now are not what they were 20 years ago - of the world, of everything," he says. "Similarly, the South African team identity is going to evolve with the country, and the country wants to express itself.

"This is how I see it. People in the team may see it differently, but this is how I see it: when you express yourself you are going a little bit out of the box, and when you do go out the box, people who view things in that box will be like 'Heeeyyy! Come back, come back, it's dangerous out there. There are lions, you know, you are in Africa, you know,'" he says, laughing loudly.

"So the team is like that too, but over time the team wants to express itself. I mean we have some amazing talent in the country. So we have this [political and cricketing] identity of being resilient and a never-say-die attitude, that will always be there because that is in the DNA of South Africa.

"Other countries in the world just put racism and oppression under the carpet, like it doesn't exist and it never existed. This country puts it out there"

"That is why history is important… from what this country was going through [during apartheid] to where it is now. Other countries in the world just put racism and oppression under the carpet, like it doesn't exist and it never existed. This country puts it out there, that is why we are so sensitive to these things… So the team is evolving and want to express ourselves. How that expression comes out, we are not too sure, but I do know that guys want to express themselves and I want to express myself."

Amla says a new South African cricket identity started forming in 2010 during a team get-together where the idea of the Proteas became more than an emblem. It became a metaphor, a rallying chant, an idea - both cricketing and social - that spoke to renewal after fire and destruction, and blossoming after adversity.

"Because we had come out of isolation, the history of [international] SA cricket is not long, and it's also divided, so I am sure the country didn't even know our identity," he says of that moment. Acknowledging that there were "people we both know who didn't support South African cricket," Amla says, "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 South Africa to be?"

The players wanted a "team that mirrors the country". "The mirror of the country that you want to see is a team that is happy, a team that works together, a team where when you go through difficulties - because in life you are going to go through difficulties - you are resilient, when you go through success you maintain your dignity in your success, and your failures. That is what you would like the country to be, and that is what we wanted the team to be, and we tried to, since 2010, we tried to live that.

"There is no perfect country in the world, and even though there is no perfection, you strive to get better and better and better… There are bigger implications for being a sportsman playing for South Africa, be it cricket, rugby or football - you are part of something that can be inspiring to the country, that's what it is all about, and that's what it still is."

He concedes that forging a new identity entails making "mistakes" and drawing criticism from journalists and commentators because "it is not a path that South Africans are used to, coming from the past that we are coming from… But you must have the courage of your convictions to accept that you will make mistakes, but understand that in the long run, this is best for the team and best for the country."

We will continue to view players like Amla, who come from non-white heritages, as two-dimensional cutouts representing a handful of labels until we learn to see the humanity that resides in us all

We will continue to view players like Amla, who come from non-white heritages, as two-dimensional cutouts representing a handful of labels until we learn to see the humanity that resides in us all © AFP/Getty Images

Despite an inconsistent period during which emphatic home series victories over Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have sandwiched a Test series humbling away to England and the ignominy of bowing out of the Champions Trophy in the group stage, this South African team is starting to express itself in fresh and exciting ways.

There is the smooth, deadly strike bowling of Kagiso Rabada. The audacious batting of Quinton de Kock as a counter-punching wicketkeeper. There is Bavuma's batting tenacity and acrobatic fielding. There is the delicious left-arm spin of Keshav Maharaj. There is the captain, Faf du Plessis, making adventurous declarations and attacking play more often than his predecessors. There is something new (South African) about a team once scorned by sections of a black population. A population that sang as it mourned anti-apartheid activists killed by the regime, that danced as it protested against oppression and faced down the bullets of the state, and shouts loudly as it considers a liberation still being delivered.

In the middle of this is the quietly serene beauty of a decent man who has weathered prejudice and bouncers to accumulate runs, stiffen his team's resolve towards victory, inspire millions of youngsters and cause some of his fellow countrymen to reconsider their world views.

"Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports," David Foster Wallace wrote in a 2006 New York Times essay about Roger Federer, "but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

"The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body."

Through Hashim Amla's body - brown, bearded, The Other - that expression of beauty extends to James' reconciliation of "the One and the Many, Individual and Social, Individual and Universal, leader and followers, representative and ranks, the part and the whole" of a contradictory country trying to express itself while still healing.

Niren Tolsi is a Johannesburg-based journalist, and co-editor of the long-form and literary journal the Con