CAPE TOWN: South African Test cricket will usher in a new era under captain Hashim Amla today when the country’s first permanent non-white skipper leads the side out against Sri Lanka in Galle.
Top order batsman Amla replaces the colossus Graeme Smith, who led the side for a decade and elevated them to the number one Test ranking in world cricket, a status they only recently lost to Australia.
Both men share similar traits regarding their will to win but in terms of personality, it would be hard to find two people from more opposite ends of the spectrum.
Smith was bullish, controversial and his bristling self-confidence often mistaken for arrogance. He was a born leader.
Amla, a devout Muslim, has a quiet demeanour, comes across as a little too humble at times and has shied away from leadership positions in limited-overs formats in recent years.
That has led to him being known in the South African dressing room as the ‘Silent Warrior’.
The 31-year-old was initially not in the running to replace Smith with the job looking secure for vice-captain AB de Villiers, who was groomed for the role by former coach Gary Kirsten after being handed the captaincy for the one-day side.
However, doubts over De Villiers’ ability to keep wicket, lead the side and be a batting mainstay led selectors to opt for Amla instead.
The latter’s role will be to nurture a side that has lost some major talent and big personalities in the recent past.
Apart from Smith, all-rounder Jacques Kallis and wicketkeeper-batsman Mark Boucher have also retired - in many ways the spine of the Test side for the past 15 years. Where Amla and Smith are similar is that both lead by example on the field, the weight of their runs and ability to turn in match-winning performances earning them respect the world over.
Amla also comes into the first match of the two-Test series in good form gained during a spell with English County Surrey, where, ironically, he replaced Smith after the latter injured his knee.
His scores of 109, 101 and 48 from as an opener in the three-match ODI series, won by South Africa ahead of the Tests, highlights his fine touch, but were achieved without the burden of captaincy.
That will be the biggest worry for the South African selectors with Amla and De Villiers now the two batsmen expected to get most of the runs for the team. It was never a problem for Smith.
In fact, he revelled in the responsibility of scoring important runs for the side at his opening position and his strength of character allowed him to do that.
Amla’s mental strength is less obvious, but should not be discounted. His shoulders are less broad, his personality less fierce but he remains a warrior.
The Sri Lanka Tests are South Africa’s first since the 2-1 home series defeat by Australia in March.REUTERS