Few players in the modern age can bend Test cricket to their will in the manner of Hashim Amla. Coming into his 100th Test, Amla had gone ten innings without reaching fifty – one of the longest droughts of a career that began more than a decade to go. He walked off as the eighth man to have marked his century with a century, having joined JP Duminy in reaching three figures to put South Africa in a dominant position at the Wanderers.
This was Amla’s day – it began with presentations of a commemorative shirt, plaque and gold medal and ended with him leaving the field to an ovation – but Duminy deserved more than a passing mention for his sixth Test century. Between them they put on a stand of 292, South Africa’s highest for any wicket against Sri Lanka and fully justifying the decision by Faf du Plessis to put the tourists into the field in pursuit of a 3-0 series whitewash.
As keen Amla students will know, it does not pay to drop him; Sri Lanka duly did, a gift gratefully accepted. He struggled through the initial stages of his innings, hit on the thumb third ball and then sending a thick, low edge toward gully in the final over before lunch. He was on 5 at the time but Dhananjaya de Silva could not hold on to the chance. It was to cast a shadow over the rest of Sri Lanka’s day.
Angelo Mathews surely smiled to himself at the toss when du Plessis chose not to insert, despite South Africa’s decision to field a four-man pace attack including the debutant Duanne Olivier. But Sri Lanka’s pain on this tour has been manifold and being put to sleep by Amla was not necessarily the kinder fate.
Sri Lanka did have some early success, with Mathews himself taking his first wicket in six Tests as South Africa stuttered to 45 for 2 in the 17th over, but Duminy went swiftly on the counterattack either side of lunch. Mathews ended up taking the second new ball and finished as the most economical bowler but there was little else to cheer Sri Lanka’s captain after the early exchanges.
There was danger in the air, as well as some swing under cloudy skies, when Duminy began his innings but he took the opportunity to make a statement in what may be his final outing at No. 4 before AB de Villiers returns from injury. Despite reaching 50, 100 and 150 with controlled edges through or wide of the cordon, this was an assured innings, although he could not quite see it through to the close as Lahiru Kumara was rewarded for another long day of toil.
Happy to drive when the ball was pitched up by Sri Lanka’s seamers, despite the bounce in the surface, Duminy scored 43 of the first 55 put on with Amla before reining himself in to ensure that he would reach his century, from just 140 balls, shortly after tea. Remarkably, having made 63 in the first Test against Sri Lanka in Port Elizabeth to set South Africa on their way, this was the first time Duminy had passed fifty twice in a series since his debut in Australia more than eight years ago.
His approach allowed Amla an extended period of bedding-in and South Africa’s venerable No. 3 slowly but surely rose to the occasion. Survival was not the prettiest but Amla has credit in the bank where that is concerned. He had ground his way to 6 from 41 balls, his vigilance palpable after being given an early life, before flashing a cut for his first boundary. Later in the afternoon session, a brace of cover-driven fours off Suranga Lakmal suggested that his investment was paying off and he reached his fifty with a scuttled single in the last over before tea.
Some of the old serenity returned as he and South Africa pushed on, with fours driven off front and back foot against Kumara. Only when he came within a blow of his hundred did the moment threaten to disrupt his famed equilibrium, as he charged skittishly at Rangana Herath and lofted a drive fine of mid-off to emulate his former captain, Graeme Smith, the last man to score a hundred in his 100th Test – though on that occasion at The Oval, Amla’s triple-century, the first by a South African, somewhat overshadowed Smith’s achievement.
This was a day on which Sri Lanka needed some luck and a change of ball did the trick for them during the morning session. South Africa’s openers, Dean Elgar and Stephen Cook, had seen off the new ball, with Lakmal particularly probing, but couldn’t withstand its replacement. Mathews had Cook lbw for a ponderous 10 and then Kumara, having waited 14 overs for a chance on a Wanderers surface considered among the fastest and bounciest in the world, nipped out Elgar.
Given a juicy pitch and slightly overcast morning, it was curious that South Africa opted not to try and inflict immediate damage to Sri Lanka’s fragile batting order. Olivier came in in place of the spinner Keshav Maharaj but was then asked to cool his heels in the dressing room. With 224 first-class wickets at 21.38, despite being just 24, the uncapped Olivier had a CV to give Sri Lanka shivers but his only contribution on the first day was to see off four balls as nightwatchman after Duminy’s late dismissal.
It was not until the 11th over that bat met ball with attacking conviction, as Elgar struck Lakmal for back-to-back fours. That prompted Sri Lanka to twice enquire about changing the ball and, at the end of the over, the umpires agreed that it had gone out of shape; leading to the sight of Rod Tucker crouched over the pitch and repeatedly throwing the (presumably new) replacement into the surface, to get it into a comparable condition. Elgar looked on with apparent concern.
The switch was accompanied by a change in the bowling and it was Mathews who ended the opening stand at 45 when Cook shuffled in front of off stump, missed an in-dipper, and shuffled off. That brought in Amla, who was welcomed by Mathews hitting him on the glove. He also edged Mathews short of the slips before de Silva gave him a let-off when diving forward to a presentable chance at gully off Lakmal.
Elgar did fall in the over after his partner, ruffled by Kumara’s pace and chasing a wide delivery to edge to slip, but that was to be Sri Lanka’s last success for 72.2 overs as Amla rediscovered a familiar, and well-worn, groove. (Courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)