Having ceded centre-stage to Jacques Kallis for much of the first day, Hashim Amla, the arc lights trained squarely on him on the second day of the first Test, delivered a virtuoso performance.
It wasn’t in front of a full house, but Amla’s unbeaten 253 possessed all the qualities of a blockbuster; it also had the imprint of individuality that separates the memorable innings from the average marathon.
Graeme Smith declared South Africa’s first innings on 558 for six, leaving India’s openers four overs to survive. Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag handled the pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel without discomfort, raising 25 before stumps.
India faces a difficult middle day; its batsmen will do worse than reprise the attitude to innings-building Amla and Kallis displayed.
Amla, resuming on 115, began Sunday authoritatively. There was a time when Amla’s movements at the crease resembled those of a marionette dangled on strings: the bat descended after a loopy double-take; the feet limply straddled the crease. Amla has since tidied his game, refining his back-lift, strengthening his footwork.
It’s still a refreshingly unique method, but as he showed at the VCA Stadium, it’s grown more robust. Amla’s pull stroke, for instance, was fraught with risk earlier; the simplification of the back-lift has helped him execute the stroke with greater control.
Both Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma were pulled in front of square by Amla. The full ball that followed was driven securely.
Sublime touch missing
Kallis took 39 minutes for his first run on Sunday. Although he struck a magnificent square-drive to the boundary, the sublime touch of Saturday wasn’t in evidence. Perhaps the pressure of making his first double-century affected him, perhaps it’s plain unreasonable to expect anyone to maintain such a high standard over a prolonged period: whatever the case, Kallis didn’t appear as invulnerable as he had on Saturday.
Kallis (173) fell to a Harbhajan Singh off-break from around the wicket, caught at forward short-leg, and walked off desperately disappointed. A.B. de Villers’ 53 was a busy, bustling innings, and it seemed to inspire a similar spirit in Amla.
de Villiers thought little of hurrying down the track to the spinners, his body low to the ground and supremely balanced despite the explosiveness of the movement.
Only Amit Mishra’s drastic — if slow — turn put de Villiers off occasionally; indeed against the leg-spinner he waited for the short ball, an inevitable consequence of a tired shoulder. Still he twice met deliveries on the full, before they could fully realise themselves as leg-breaks, and clipped them for boundaries.
Both off-spinners were fair game. Sehwag dealt better with de Villiers’ footwork than Harbhajan. Sehwag pauses in his delivery stride, which allows him to adjust late — sighting one of de Villiers’ advances, he pushed an off-break wide. The batsman tried to hit to leg, but for once couldn’t get into the position needed and the miscued stroke was held by S. Badrinath behind point.
Amla progressed serenely, but India’s bowlers managed to retard South Africa’s scoring. In the hour before tea, India kept South Africa to 30 runs from 14 overs — the home side’s best hour of play after the first morning.
Amla went from 184 to 188 with a reverse-swept four, but otherwise played the percentages, turning Harbhajan and Sehwag behind square on the leg-side. Barring an edged drive on Sunday that went between the keeper and first slip, and a possible dropped chance on 149, Amla gave India little hope.
Harbhajan not effective
India’s bowlers hadn’t much to work with. Harbhajan bowled better than he did on Saturday, experimenting with a wider line to start with before going around the stumps. But great bowlers manage to find penetration in difficult conditions, and Harbhajan didn’t on Sunday.
Mishra was unlucky: he’s the sort of bowler who produces wicket-taking balls, and he repeatedly beat batsmen with leg-breaks that went around corners without gaining the edge.
Neither Zaheer nor Ishant could harness the powers of reverse swing as he’d have liked. But bowling conditions are best judged after both teams have had their turn.
Will South Africa’s bowlers succeed where India’s didn’t? The tourists have a slight advantage however: the weight of a massive first-innings often exerts paralysing pressure.
South Africa -- 1st innings: G. Smith b Zaheer 6 (26b), A. Prince c Dhoni b Zaheer 0 (10b), H. Amla (not out) 253 (473b, 22x4), J. Kallis c Vijay b Harbhajan 173 (351b, 15x4, 2x6), A.B. de Villiers c Badrinath b Sehwag 53 (88b, 5x4), J-P. Duminy lbw b Harbhajan 9 (35b, 1x4), M. Boucher c Mishra b Zaheer 39 (75b, 3x4), D. Steyn (not out) 0 (7b); Extras (b-8, lb-8, nb-9): 25. Total (for six wickets decl. in 176 overs): 558.
Fall of wickets: 1-5 (Prince), 2-6 (Smith), 3-346 (Kallis), 4-454 (de Villiers), 5-476 (Duminy), 6-554 (Boucher).
India bowling: Zaheer 31-7-96-3, Ishant 28-4-85-0, Harbhajan 46-1-166-2, Mishra 53-5-140-0, Sehwag 18-1-55-1.
India -- 1st innings: G. Gambhir (batting) 12 (14b, 2x4), V. Sehwag (batting) 9 (10b, 1x4); Extras (b-4): 4. Total (for no loss in four overs): 25.
South Africa bowling: Steyn 2-0-8-0, Morkel 2-0-13-0.