NOTTINGHAM – Hashim Amla took great pleasure from blocking the ball and leaving the ball on Sunday.
His forward defence was impeccable, his back-foot defence wasn’t bad either.
They’re not the kind of things that in the age of razzle and dazzle give cause for spectators to sit up, but Amla’s not played in that way for a while.
It used to be his way. Against England, he’s had five innings in which he’s spent over five hours at crease, the most famous of which was his 13-hour South African Test record at The Oval five years ago.
In trying to explain why Amla has struggled in recent times – he was averaging under 35 in the last 12 months ahead of this series with England – many have pointed fingers at the amount of white-ball cricket he’s played recently.
At international level, he’s a fixture for the Proteas in the 50-over format and at the World T20 tournaments.
He’s also spent the last two seasons playing in the IPL, and of course the demands of that tournament are dismissive of patience and defence.
Amla’s a smart enough player that he wouldn’t allow the kind of flamboyance demanded in the shorter formats to impact on his Test game.
But even the best of players can develop bad habits, and the rhythm of Test-match batting can be difficult to find when you’ve spent the best part of four months swinging your bat as hard as possible at the ball.
Amla certainly didn’t have that rhythm at Lord’s, misjudging Moeen Ali’s spin in the first innings and then being flummoxed by a beauty from Liam Dawson in the second.
In this Test, though, the rhythm of Test batting has returned for him.
He had to fight very hard on day one against a swinging and seaming ball under cloudy skies to make 78, although the manner of his dismissal – out hooking – did not please him.
With South Africa wanting to bat all day on Sunday while the pitch was still playing well, Amla could regain the Test-match batting rhythm which has seemingly deserted him in the last year.
With the exception of his century against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers in his 100th Test, Amla hasn’t spent much time at the crease for a player so well known for his patient approach to batting.
On Sunday, that virtue was on full display. Amla just wanted to bat – runs were not a priority, time was – and so was his defence and judgement, and those were for large parts of his innings in very good order.
Ben Stokes bowled a brutal spell around the lunch interval in which he dismissed Dean Elgar (80 off 136 balls, 12x4), who got in an awful tangle against a short ball.
Amla ducked and swayed, and when Stokes drew him forward, his front-foot defence was immaculate.
The hook shot was mostly absent, although there was one searing pull off Mark Wood which saw the ball rocket to the boundary.
Otherwise Amla was becalmed, his only sign of aggression coming against England’s spinners, with Liam Dawson targeted before lunch when Amla launched him straight a couple of times, including hitting him for six to register his second-half century of the match.
It didn’t make for enthralling viewing, but it proved mightily effective.
Although given all the hard work he’d put in, he’d have been miffed – at least as miffed as Amla gets – that he was dismissed just 13 runs short of a century, especially as that dismissal was to Dawson.
The 33-year-old’s 87 came off 180 balls, with 14 fours and that six.
For the Proteas, perhaps the most significant ball of the day was the one that got skipper Faf du Plessis out. The barely 10-over-old second new ball shot through low from Stokes, striking Du Plessis just above his ankle to dismiss him lbw for 63 (128 balls, 9x4).
That the pitch should be acting that way after just three days probably influenced South Africa’s decision to declare late in the evening. It’s reasonable to assume it will only get worse.
The Proteas ground out 343/9 declared late on Sunday, and set England a daunting target of 474 for victory at Trent Bridge.
England opener Alastair Cook survived a first-ball “dismissal” when he was given out lbw to Morné Morkel, but he opted to review the decision and earned a reprieve, with the ball going over the top as the hosts blocked out four overs for a single.