Bangalore: I first spoke to Hashim Amla nearly eight years ago, a few days before his Test debut at Eden Gardens. At the time, no one was sure that he would play - South Africa had more than held their own in the drawn game in Kanpur - and there was a raised eyebrow from Gerald de Kock, the media manager, when I asked for some time. "Hashim?" he asked. "Not the usual suspects?"
To be honest, the idea wasn't mine. Greg Struthers, who cleaned up my copy most weeks for The Sunday Times, reckoned it would make a fascinating story. "If he does play, he'll be the first Asian to represent South Africa," he wrote to me. Then, there was that beard, quite unlike anything cricket had seen since the days of Dr. WG Grace.
The young man I met, though, was hardly in the good doctor's league when it came to self-regard. He was soft-spoken, articulate and incredibly earnest. The face may have been different, but there were times when I could have closed my eyes and imagined Rahul Dravid saying the same things. On a whim, before I'd even watched him bat properly, I decided that Amla was the real deal, that he merited a lengthy feature rather than a snippet.
He made just 26 in that Test, and added a mere 36 in two games against Michael Vaughan's rampant side in South Africa before the selectors decided that some time away would best help his cause. At that stage, he looked skittish and uncertain, a very good first-class player who had suddenly discovered just how much harder Test cricket could be.
There were flaws in the technique, especially against Steve Harmison's pace and bounce, and the headline for our feature - Asian Hope - looked increasingly speculative as he faded from view. The conviction with which he had answered questions, however, meant that I still believed. There are many who parrot the right words. With a select few, you just know that they mean them.
The half an hour spent with him was also more than enough to convince one that despite the special treatment - the Castle Lager logo had been removed from his shirt out of respect for his religious beliefs - he was still one of the boys. The room was as messy as any other, with clothes and kit strewn everywhere, save for the prayer mat, carefully folded away in a corner.
The beard question was answered with a smile. "I started growing it after school," he said. "All the prophets have worn one." And unlike Tim Tebow, devout Christian quarterback picked on by sections of the media for overt displays of faith, Amla insisted back then that jibes on the field never extended to that aspect of his life. "When I've been sledged, it's been on the basis of my ability as a cricketer," he said. "Not once has anyone picked on the fact that I'm a Muslim."
That was before Dean Jones and his infamous off-air comment, but the grace with which Amla handled that episode won him as many admirers as his revamped batting style. He still plays with an elegance and poise that eludes most, but the second coming has been marked most by a ruthlessness and endurance that few have shown in the game's long history.
On the tour of India in 2010, he batted on and on and on, bringing to mind Lord Relator's Calypso about Sunil Gavaskar. With a little more support at Eden Gardens, his defiant second-innings epic would have realised a draw and a series win. As it was, he finished the two-match series with 490 runs for one dismissal.
The triple-century at The Oval had many similarities to Dravid's 233 at Adelaide in 2003. After the early exchanges, it never once seemed that Amla would get out. Powers of concentration that would be considered freakish in others seem almost commonplace where Amla is concerned. For him, the long innings - he batted 499 minutes while trying to save the Kolkata Test - is just one more barrier to surmount.
After 60 Tests, Dravid had scored 4733 runs at 51.44, with 10 centuries and 26 fifties. Amla, from the same number of matches, has 42 more runs at a marginally lower average (50.26). His conversion rate though is far better, with 15 hundreds and 23 half-centuries. More importantly, Amla has the same unflappable presence, one that drives bowlers to despair.
All those years ago, before he'd marked his guard for the first time, I asked him what he thought he could learn from India's line-up. His answer said much about the kind of player he'd gone on to be. "The line-up has huge quality," he said. "But I'd love to talk to Dravid when there's time." Not Tendulkar, not Laxman, not Sehwag. Dravid.
There have been occasions for chats since, and while India struggle to replace a man who might well be irreplaceable, South Africa need not worry about the No.3 slot for years to come.
Story first published on: Thursday, 26 July 2012 16:23 IST