Two years, eight months, four days and 78.2 kilometres separate Kevin Pietersen from Hashim Amla in lifespan and birthplace. In life and cricket they are worlds apart.
Two young men from the same part of South Africa, Kwa-Zulu Natal, have turned out as differently as the two places they are from: Pietermaritzburg and Durban. On the face of it, the similarities are obvious between the towns, as they are with the men. They are both professional sportsmen, cricketers, batsmen, who operate in crucial position at the top of the order, products of top South African schools and performers in a sport that is thriving.
Look deeper and you will realise that Pietermaritzburg has no sea and the gap between the two is as wide as the Indian Ocean. That calm, vast mass of blue represents of the oceans between Pietersen and Amla. The former has made as many enemies as the latter has made friends. Pietersen has played for four domestic teams and has had altercations at every one. Amla has played peacefully for one, the same team that Pietersen started at.
It was in the year 2000 that Pietersen decided to use politics to justify why he was not getting picked regularly for Kwa-Zulu Natal. Pietersen said the quota system was to blame for him being overlooked. In fact, it was that he was nothing more than a mediocre off spinner who, although dedicated to fitness and hard work, was hardly deserving of a regular place.
Pietersen packed up and flew to England where he played for Nottinghamshire. Three years later, he asked to be released from his contract blaming the pitch at Trent Bridge for his lack of runs. A move to Hampshire followed, where he stayed until he decided he could no longer live a small town life and wanted to live to London. In between, Pietersen qualified for England and blended self-assurance, with skill, to emerge as one of their best batsmen. When the explosive Pietersen takes to the crease, cricket fans around the world stop what they are doing and watch.
While Pietersen was battling the world, Amla was completing school at the alma mata of cricket legends Barry Richards and Lance Klusener, Durban Boys’ High. Apartheid South Africa caused Amla and his older brother, Ahmed, to be schooled apart. Ahmed is four years older and had to go to a school for pupils of Indian descent, as were the rules of the apartheid day. By the time Hashim reached high school, the doors of opportunity had opened and he was able to get specialised cricketing coaching, once the preserve of the privileged, on the playing fields of Durban Boys’ High.
Amla’s talent, despite a dodgy back lift, was obvious and he was selected for South Africa’s under-19 squad as soon as he was old enough. He went on to captain them as a reluctant leader.
As luck would have it, on the same day Amla made his Test debut for South Africa, Pietersen made his ODI debut for England. It was November 28, 2004. Amla was scratchy against India and his technique appeared flawed. He was dropped after three Tests and it took him almost two years to make his way back into the South African team.
Pietersen began batting for England in Zimbabwe, in a fairly low key fashion, but blossomed for his adopted country. He scored three centuries for England on the tour and showed that brash bullishness could breed success.
When Pietersen and Amla met eight years later, both their fortunes had changed. The former had suffered an unhappy stint as England captain, which ended almost as quickly as it began, but had established himself as a player who was the backbone of the English batting line-up. Aggressive, audacious and arrogant: Pietersen’s game is as dramatic as summer lightening. Multi-million dollar contracts, in the Indian Premier League, led Pietersen to a lucrative football-style club-over-country life. He lived the life and moved to fashionable Chelsea, where he hangs out with Frank Lampard and co.
By contrast, Amla took long to build to a crescendo. First, he mastered Test cricket, culminating in a double century in India. Then, he topped the rankings in ODIs and slowly made the transition to twenty-overs, something he is still working on. He was elevated to vice-captain of the limited-overs sides, under AB de Villiers, and skippered in De Villiers’ absence. His back lift became less pronounced, but only just, as he made what he had work for him.
Amla’s personal life was a world away from Chelsea and remained a secret. Amla married, his schoolteacher wife, Summaya, had their first child, a son, in January 2011, but to date, no-one in the media has seen either. The only hint that Amla had a life outside cricket was when promoted baby shoes and a brand of cold-drink for an online company.
Come England in July, the two men from KwaZulu Natal faced off in a battle to be the best team in the world. Amla struck the first blow by setting the South African record for the most runs in an innings with 311 at the Oval. Pietersen counter attacked 149 at Leeds to help England draw against the odds.
Then Pietersen, to use a cricketing metaphor, hit wicket. He sent text messages to members of the South African squad, deriding his team-mates. It was disapproved of by the England and Wales Cricket Board and they dropped him from the final, must-win match of the series. In that match, Amla scored his second century of the series and South Africa were crowned No.1 cricket team on the planet.
“I’m not even the second best batsman in my team,” Amla said modestly.
Amla dedicated the hundred to the team statistician, Prasanna Agoram, who had converted to Islam. It was Amla’s way of reiterating his commitment to his religion, something he holds so dear he refused to wear the sponsors’ logo because it was a beer brand.
Gestures a world away from the bling of Pietersen and Chelsea; gestures that were pure.