It was the drinks break in the evening session. Faf du Plessis was having his hamstrings stretched, the New Zealand players were in a huddle being given yet another talking to and Hashim Amla, on 89, was sitting on one knee on the outfield as he always does when it’s time to take in some water.
He had the serenity of an oasis, as the desert around him continued to busy itself with activity. The physiotherapist issued instructions to du Plessis and the visiting bowlers and fielders wore expressions that suggested they were listening intently. Amla was crouched on the grass completely unaffected by any of it. His focus was perfectly uninterrupted.
His ability to block out the peripheral was not just evident in those few small moments but throughout his innings. Amla’s calm nature is as well documented as his cover drive but serenity and sensibility are not the same things.
The former is what makes Amla such a joy to watch because there is no panic in the way he plays. The latter is what makes Amla such a good player because he is able to compartmentalise. That character trait allows him to treat everything, not just every ball, on its merits. He is not affected by past mistakes, neither is he driven by future possibilities. By his own admission, Amla does not set goals because he finds them limiting.
It’s a much publicised but almost always unrealistic notion to simply live in the now. Amla comes close to actually doing it. This innings showed that because it was not chanceless but Amla still came out of it covered in glory.
Amla started with a leading edge off the first ball he faced that would have seen him dismissed for a duck if midwicket was in place. He edged a few too. The ball was swinging and Trent Boult and Neil Wagner were able to exploit that, so Amla had to be patient. “We felt under pressure,” AB de Villiers admitted.
Unlike Amla, New Zealand’s bowlers were not able to maintain their standards. As lunch approached, they loosened up often erring on the side of a touch too full as they searched for edges. They also looked a bowler short because when the three seamers needed a break and Brendon McCullum did not want to turn to Jeetan Patel, he had nowhere to go.
Colin Munro did some work later in the day but McCullum wanted his frontliners upfront and it proved a tricky juggle to try and ensure they were all able to continue at their optimum for as long as McCullum needed. Doug Bracewell’s opening spell was seven overs long and he, like the others, seemed to tire before the break.
They returned from it refocused, though. Trent Boult was tasked with trying to make a breakthrough and he almost did. He created the chance to have Amla caught at gully, tempting him with width, but Kane Williamson split it.
With that, momentum had shifted to Amla, who is known for capitalising on second lives (just ask England about The Oval) and away from New Zealand, who knew they had made a costly mistake. “You can’t dwell on it when you miss those chances because you’ve got to focus on where the next opportunity it going to be,” Neil Wagner said. “But he never gave us a chance after that again.”
Although the pitch remained slow, conditions became easier through the afternoon and Amla settled in. He worked the ball around the field creatively with de Villiers and then du Plessis at the other end, responding to their calls for quick singles even though that style of batting is not Amla’s first choice.
He once mooted the idea that the reason him and Jacques Kallis are South Africa’s most successful partnership is because they bat at the same, relaxed tempo. But with the two energisers and an attack that had run out of ideas, Amla played along.
The final session yielded 134 runs of which Amla scored only 37. He let de Villiers and du Plessis play the aggressor role and was content to simply stay there himself because that will be important for South Africa on the second day.
“We all feed off him. He is the rock for us. With him and Jacques Kallis we’ve got the best combination at No. 3 and 4 in the world,” AB de Villiers said. “They are always steadying the ship for us and we can just come out and enjoy our game. Everyone fed off Hashim today. He played a great innings again. He has been in unbelievable form pretty much his whole career.”
Words that will leave New Zealand sleeping uneasy tonight but that are a massive compliment for Amla. Knowing his bashfulness, it’s difficult to think Amla will lap up the praise. All he is likely to do is accept it graciously and then pack it away so it does not influence what he has to do tomorrow.