Amla applies the cool hand of experience to take full control
If Graeme Smith treats his bat as a bludgeon, Hashim Amla deploys his as an accomplished painter might use a brush. Where Smith's game is based upon power and pragmatism, Amla's shots are delicate and precise, and between them the pair compiled a record-breaking partnership that threatened to break England's spirit.
Ed Miliband was among the spectators at The Oval, but the superstitious ones in the England dressing-room might ask the Labour leader to stay away in future after a day of so little joy for the home team. Amla's innings was a study in expert craftsmanship, the combination of an icy temperament and a technique that unites silk and steel.
Watching Amla repel the England bowlers in such serene fashion, it felt strange to recall the difficulties he experienced early in his international career. During England's 2004‑05 tour of South Africa, Amla made only 36 runs in four innings.
He is a different player now, a Test cricketer toughened by nearly eight years of international battles and fortified by 15 centuries and an average of 47. With his team 1 for 1 and facing danger on the second day, Amla walked to the wicket and restored their balance.
When he had made 40 he was dropped by Andrew Strauss at slip off Ravi Bopara, but that was the sole blemish on a marvellous knock. The only moments in which Amla looked slightly uneasy were when he tried to sweep Graeme Swann. Otherwise, he played the spinner with composure and control, and when the seamers tried to outwit him, Amla responded with competent defence and intelligent attack.
A devout Muslim, Amla has an agreement with Cricket South Africa that means he does not have to display logos promoting alcohol on his clothing, as his team-mates do. Amla requested this when he began playing for his country and he has adhered to it.
Life cannot have been easy for Amla early in his senior international career, especially as he had captained South Africa's Under-19 team and done well for their A side. The 29-year-old believes that his initial difficulties enabled him to mature into the player he is today.
"It took me some time and in one sense, I was fortunate," he said before this series. "If you fail at the start, sometimes it's easier to find your feet and come back, and I'm grateful that I was able to do that.
"Not much has changed, but it's about the experiences you gain, and they have added to the character I am. It is about knowing how the international set-up works, and playing in this environment has given me time to develop."
Amla's innings sapped the energy of the England players and drained concentration in a section of the crowd. With South Africa past 300 and Amla approaching his 150, we had the first Mexican Wave of the Test. Shortly before Smith's wicket, a group of England supporters tried to revive their side by chanting: "We've got the best team in the world". While the Test rankings support that view, it was perhaps not the best moment to express it.
Amla reached his 150 with fluent timing, punishing Swann by driving his overpitched delivery for four.
Amla's celebration was as understated as his response when he completed his hundred. Then, there was a quick punch of the air and an embrace from his captain, Smith. If South Africa win the series and replace England at the top of the standings, perhaps we can expect something more demonstrative.
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