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 is tense as Kevin Pietersen searches for 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 second slip by Jacques Kallis. It is an illusory release of pressure.
He has added only two runs before his stumps are shattered by Morne Morkel, a gangling young Afrikaner with gentle features which contrast sharply with the coltish aggression of his bowling, where pace and bounce are all. Pietersen, with his proud, upright bearing and composed demeanour, leaves the field. The mood is heavy with the scent of unburdened emotion and thwarted ambition.
One of the South African team is Hashim Mahomed Amla, a 29-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 KwaZulu-Natal against England. Pietersen saw himself as a shackled, repressed talent, forced to bowl off-spin while dreaming of a better life abroad; Amla was 16, 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 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 get.
The history of South African Test cricket is weighed down by 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 to stand even on the rung below.
Once upon a time, Amla would have been the player required to leave his homeland to realise 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 on which 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.