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By Suresh Menon
A triple century in Tests does not automatically qualify the player to be one of the batting greats of the game. Yet, it does raise the level of the debate where the individual is concerned. Hashim Amla's unbeaten triple against England has not come as a surprise, and that alone is testimony to his skill and temperament. His highest score before this, 253 not out, was also made away from home, in Nagpur; he followed that up with two centuries in the Kolkata Test. At the Oval, he batted for over 13 hours; only Len Hutton has played a longer innings in that country while making 364.
Any time you sit down to try and find a pattern in cricket's triple centuries, it defeats you because there is none. You cannot find patterns in prime numbers (or at least, no has as yet) or individual batting records.
Amla's is the 26th score of over 300; the first one was also scored away from home – by England's Andy Sandham, in Kingston, Jamaica. The highest Test score away from home remains Hanif Mohammed's 337 against the West Indies in Barbados. Four of the top five highest scores were made by left handers, the exception being Mahela Jayawardene's 374 against South Africa in Colombo. For years, South Africa had neither conceded an individual triple nor scored one; and then three modern batsmen, Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle and Jayawardene ruined that record.
Not all 300-makers will find an automatic slot in the all-time XIs of their respective countries. Fine batsmen though they may be, it is difficult to see Matthew Hayden, Mark Taylor, Chris Gayle, Michael Clarke, Sandham, Bobby Simpson, John Edrich or Bob Cowper making the cut.
What makes Amla's effort special is not merely the fact that he is the first player of Indian origin to play for South Africa and make himself a vital batsman in the middle order. Or even the fact that he has emerged as an all round player, sixth in the recent Test rankings and No. 1 in the one-day game. Significantly, as a batsman, Amla has converted himself from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. In his early years, he crouched, he scratched around, he brought his bat down in strange arcs, he found it difficult to push the ball off the square. Now he is seen as a 'natural' in the Mohammad Azharuddin mould, although Geoff Boycott probably got closer to it when he compared Amla to Pakistan's Mohammad Yousuf. The beard probably makes the analogy work better. Perhaps this was the highest score by a bearded batsman.
Amla plays the game's most pleasing shot, the cover drive as well as anybody, with an apparent lack of effort that makes a mockery of his early struggles. His flicks to midwicket bring his wrists into play as if it were a genetic thing, as it probably is since that is the manner the best Indian batsmen have played the game. And above all there is a calmness, a serenity that is almost yogic in its import. It is difficult to rattle Amla, and bowlers who try it by sledging realised early that it was ust a waste of their time and energy.
With the retirement of Rahul Dravid and the winding down of Ricky Ponting's career, Amla can claim to be the best No. 3 in the world – not that he is likely to. He is the old-fashioned cricketer, letting his bat and his runs do the talking, and leaving the interpretation to others.
At 29, Amla might discover that events are rearranging themselves around him in a manner that might make his elevation to the captaincy inevitable. That would make him the second non-White to lead after Ashwell Prince. He has already led the one-day team in the absence of de Villiers.
Whatever else it does, a triple century in Test cricket is a great liberator, freeing the batsman from having to apologise for any shortcoming. Amla is a very good batsman, he has time enough to aspire for greatness.