The South Africa cricket team will make history this week, in a quiet way, when they take the field for the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle. For the first time the country that was for so long shamed by its racist apartheid regime will be led by a full-time non-white captain in Hashim Amla.
The 31-year-old batsman has a stiff task ahead, needing to win both Test matches to regain the top spot in the ICC rankings after South Africa were overtaken by Australia after the latter’s Ashes whitewash during the winter.
He will hope he can continue with his good form with the bat after taking on the new responsibility, having impressed for Surrey early in the season and scored two centuries in the recent one-day series in Sri Lanka that South Africa won 2-1.
Amla, as is his custom on and off the field, was playing it straight on the eve of the series, saying: “The one-dayers have given the team a lot of confidence and a lot of belief of winning here, even though Test cricket is a largely different game. We’ve got an experienced bunch of guys and it has been a lot easier to focus.”
Amla has some big shoes to fill, quite apart from all symbolic considerations. He takes over from Graeme Smith, who stood down in March after holding the post for more than a decade. Smith was captain for more Tests than any other player in the history of the game, 109, and achieved the best record among all captains with 53 wins – ahead of Australia’s Ricky Ponting (48).
Ashwell Prince has previously stood in for Smith as his country’s first non-white skipper but only for two Tests when Smith was injured.
The build-up to the series has been overshadowed by the announcement that another of the great leaders, Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene, would be retiring from Test cricket. But he has not gone yet and the elegant batsman remains a formidable obstacle in the way of South Africa’s hopes of regaining the No 1 ranking.
Sri Lanka’s current captain, Angelo Mathews, denied that his team had an advantage because of the tourists’ change of leadership. “Changing the captain doesn’t really matter because they’ve still got those players in the team,” he said.
“They’re a very strong team to beat. They’ve lost to us in the past but they’ve played some really good cricket in the recent past so we can’t be complacent.”
However, following the retirement of Smith and also the legendary all-rounder Jacques Kallis, as well as concerns over a knee injury to AB de Villiers, there will be added pressure on Amla to score heavily in the top order. He has described his new role as “an honour and a privilege”, though he has shied away from responsibility in the past, having stood down the post of deputy to De Villiers in limited-overs cricket.
Indeed, De Villiers might well have landed the Test job if the selectors were not worried by the fact that he has to combine wicketkeeping duties with being a top-order batsman himself.
Amla is known as one of the quiet men of the dressing room. A devout Muslim, he will be allowed to continue wearing a shirt without the sponsor’s logo – Castle Lager – which runs counter to his religious beliefs.