Hashim Amla said it “felt good” to get to 50 on Saturday. Photo: www.photosport.nz

South Africa toiled to 123/4 on a gritty opening day of the third and final Test against New Zealand in Hamilton on Saturday.

The tourists won the toss and elected to bat first, under grey skies, and were soon in trouble, as they slipped to 5/2, losing both openers.

The decision to bat may have surprised some, given the overhead conditions, as well as rain that is expected to hover in Hamilton for much of the match.

New Zealand, needing a win to level the series, would have rued the absence of their two swing kings in Tim Southee and Trent Boult as the playing conditions looked tailor-made for their craft.

The Proteas also had a significant change in personnel. Theunis de Bruyn, the Knights’ middle-order batsman, was handed a Test debut, replacing the struggling Stephen Cook at the top of the order.

However, De Bruyn lasted just three balls before he went feeling for a Matt Henry length delivery, and nicked off for a debut duck.

Fellow opener Dean Elgar then shouldered arms to Colin de Grandhomme in the next over and heard his off-stump rattled to leave the Proteas in all sorts of strife.

Hashim Amla, who has had a quiet series by his standards, grafted his way to 50, mixing patience with some exquisite, trademark driving through the covers and down the ground.

JP Duminy, another who has struggled for runs of late, again did the hard work to get to 20, but then gave it all away by hooking Henry to long-leg, where Jeetan Patel took a good catch running to his left.

In the circumstances, it was an especially loose shot by Duminy, and it left South Africa at 64/3 just before lunch.

Things could have been even worse as Amla called Faf du Plessis for a suicidal single to gully, but Kane Williamson narrowly missed the stumps to give the South African skipper a reprieve.

Bad light saw play called off for an early lunch, with South Africa at 71/3, and knowing that there was a lot of work to do.

After the luncheon interval, Amla strode his way to his 32nd Test half-century, but he was out almost immediately after. Looking to stay positive, Amla sought to clip De Grandhomme through midwicket, but was undone by some late swing, and bowled.

“It was nice to get some runs, it felt good,” Amla commented at day’s end. “It was tough batting conditions. We were hoping it would clear up, and then later in the afternoon the cloud cover would come back. The guys are going to have to fight through for more runs tomorrow,” he added.

Du Plessis continued to pick off the loose balls when they came, and his presence will be crucial for the tourists.

He did enjoy a fair bit of luck, though. Aside from nearly being run out without scoring, he looked to have got a feint nick off Neil Wagner, but the Kiwis had already used up both of their reviews, and Du Plessis carried on.

New Zealand coach Mike Hesson and captain Kane Williamson in conversation in Hamilton. Williamson made a number of mistakes with his TV referrals. Photo: www.photosport.nz

The Kiwis inability to get the best out of the technology has hurt them all series, and the first day of the final Test was another example of their indecision, with some almost comical reviews requested, when they would have been better served keeping their powder dry.

Meanwhile, the South African decision to keep the injured Quinton de Kock in the team, as much for the extra security of his batting than anything else, looked necessary by the end of the day’s play, with the Proteas still not out of the woods at 123 for four, and their top-order again wiped away.

With rain likely to be a factor for most of the match, the stop-start nature of play will not be easy for batsmen, and South Africa will hope Du Plessis (33 not out) and Temba Bavuma (13 not out) settle into their work again, before they call on the services of the talismanic De Kock.

Independent Media