TELFORD VICE, Newlands
WHO was that man in the middle on the third day of the second test between SA and England at Newlands on Monday, and what has he done with the Hashim Amla whose compatriots have come to know and worry about these past few months?
With grenades calling for the end of his tenure as SA’s captain – so to save his batting career – exploding all around him, Amla fought back with a defiant 157 not out.
“To get a big score like he did, we as a team are extremely proud of him,” Faf du Plessis said. “He’s put in a lot of hard work in the nets, and his innings is a huge step in the right direction.”
This was not the Amla of India last year, when he averaged 16.85 in seven innings. Or even of the first test of this series at Kingsmead, where he fretted for more than half-an-hour for each of his efforts of seven and 12.
He was the Amla of Nagpur in 2010, when he made an undefeated 253, of the Oval in 2012, when he racked up 311 not out, and of Centurion in 2014, when he took 208 off West Indies.
Amla anchored SA’s 353/3, which means they will resume on Tuesday 276 runs in arrears of England’s first innings of 629/6 declared.
“We were behind the eight-ball,” Du Plessis said. “It needed a really resilient performance for us to try and get back in the game, and that’s what we did. We didn’t score as quickly as England, but for us it was about getting back into the test match.”
There is, then, plenty for South Africans to feel relieved about in Monday’s wake. But, as yet, they do not have reasons to be cheerful.
“We won’t sit here and say everything has changed and that we are on top of the wave again. We know there’s a lot of work still to be done. The only way we are going to quiet the critics is to be consistent.”
As magnificent as Amla was on Monday, the big picture remains that he is under pressure as SA’s captain. If his side lose this match, that will be the case regardless of how many runs he scores.
Performance is power for any player. But, for captains, it means nothing if their teams don’t win.
However, it would be unfair not to give Amla his due. Although he hit 21 fours from the 371 balls he faced, the stroke that defined his innings was not a boundary.
Instead, it was the gentle kiss his bat laid on a ball bowled by Ben Stokes in the sixth over after lunch.
Amla, his feet having twinkled together with the snappiness that has been absent from his movement at the crease since the start of the series in India, rose to the tips of his toes to meet the rising delivery.
As he did so, his body slid smartly behind his bat, both of which were angled perfectly to allow the ball to bisect the men at point and cover point.
The two fielders set off in pursuit, and only just won the race to the boundary.
In the scorebook, the shot was worth three runs. In the hearts and minds of South Africans, it was priceless.
With minimal exceptions, Amla was true to his unemphatic, dispassionate self on Monday. When he did show the rash flashes that have undone him too many times in the recent past, he got away with it.
After a dozen innings in which his highest score was 63, his only half-century, he had claimed his 24th ton.
The stand of 183 Amla shared with an equally disciplined AB de Villiers, and the unbroken partnership of 85 between Amla and Du Plessis, whose grit earned him an unbeaten 51, will have brought hopeful sighs that the end of SA’s slide, which now stands at four defeats in five tests, could be close.
De Villiers was dropped on five and Amla on 76 and 120, but their resolve remained unshaken and meant that, in the 87 overs that comprised the day’s play, SA lost just one wicket.
For the first time in this series, England were the team out of luck.