South African Time

This, written in November 2012, was my winning entry in the first Wisden writing competition.  It grew out of my reflections on a particularly captivating session of Test cricket at The Oval in the summer of 2012, and the realisation that while various people in the media had occasionally mentioned the time that Kevin Pietersen played against England for Natal in 1999 (especially those, such as Michael Atherton,  Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, who’d played in the match), nobody seemed to have spotted that Hashim Amla had been among  Pietersen’s team-mates.  That led me to think about the ways in which the careers and fortunes of the two players would have been different if they’d grown up a generation earlier.

The piece was edited slightly for publication in the 2013 Wisden.  This is the original version.

It is a warm evening in south London, with just a hint of the hazy stickiness that infuses the capital’s air when the temperature and humidity climb. It is July 2012 and the sunshine comes as welcome relief after weeks of sullen skies and intense rain.

The Oval atmosphere is tense as England’s Kevin Pietersen searches to find the fluency and restless innovation which are the leitmotifs of his best batting. The South African attack is fast, skilful and persistently accurate. On 14 Pietersen is dropped at slip by Jacques Kallis. It is a temporary and illusory release of pressure.

He has faced just five further deliveries and added only two runs before his stumps are shattered by Morne Morkel. Morkel is a gangling young Afrikaner with gentle features which contrast sharply with the coltish aggression of his bowling, in which pace and bounce are all. With his proud, upright bearing and composed demeanour, Pietersen leaves the field. The air is heavy with the scent of unburdened emotion and thwarted ambition.

Among the South African team is Hashim Mahomed Amla, a twenty-nine year-old from Durban who is now among the world’s greatest batsmen. He has met Pietersen before.

In 1999 Amla and Pietersen played for KwazuluNatal against England. Pietersen was a shackled, repressed talent, forced to bowl off-spin while dreaming of a better life abroad; Amla was sixteen years old, saturnine and clean-shaven, yet to become the wearer of the second most celebrated beard in cricket history.

A few months later, Pietersen left South Africa. Amla stayed, endured dark times and eventually flourished. His batting, now at its zenith, is a potent amalgam of technical precision, fluid timing and understated power. In 2012, in England, this is as good as the batsman’s art can possibly get.

The history of South Africa in Test cricket is weighed down with unfulfilled expectations and denied promise. Great, great players – Pollock, Procter, Richards, van der Bijl – went to their cricketing graves without an extended opportunity to display their talents on the widest stage. But this is to say nothing of the legions of cricketers who, because of their race, were denied the chance even to stand on the rung below.

Once upon a time, Hashim Amla would have been the player required to leave his homeland to fulfil his potential and live out his dreams. It would have been the destiny of Pietersen, with his expensive Pietermaritzburg education and his apparently inviolable sense of self-certainty, to wear the national cap.

Amla is a modest, reserved, devout man. He wastes little emotion, but, as he leaves the field at the close of a day when he has completed the highest individual score by a South African Test batsman, he exudes calm satisfaction. His place in history is secure.

Cricket is a game of conjunctions, of ironies, of veiled resonances. When Hashim Amla was a boy, his country didn’t have an international team. Now, for him, and his nation, the feeling of belonging is sweet.

This is their time.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 2013

 

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