England v South Africa, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 3rd day July 21, 2012

Smith and Amla a study in contrasts

Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla both scored centuries on the third at The Oval but that is where the similarities stop for two vastly different batsmen

Contrast is a form of art on its own. That is why the splash of a sunset against the canvas of the sky is a ready-made photograph and the rugged feel of leather and the luxurious softness of silk make them both common materials for clothing. The beauty of them all comes not just because they are different but because they are strikingly different.

In cricket, too, those extreme juxtapositions exist. The same players can produce a completely different contest on a green top to the one they will tussle over on a rank turner. A seam bowler's snarl invokes a different fear to a spinner's snare and at The Oval on day three, Graeme Smith's determination gave the England bowlers as much to think about as Hashim Amla's elegance did.

The two combined for 259 runs, the highest second-wicket stand for South Africa against England. Their blend of belligerence and style took the game from its position on the fence and planted it squarely in South Africa's corner.

Technically and temperamentally, the duo are as different as beauty and the beast. Smith lumbers through innings with a heavy bottom-hand and predominance for thumping the ball onto the leg side with little regard for how blunt the clobbering looks. Amla dances through, from his unusual backlift to his delicate driving and wristy strokeplay.

Those two approaches formed a resistance so strong that the England bowlers could not penetrate it. Like all good attacks, South Africa's pair built theirs on a foundation of defence. Smith and Amla played out the end of the second day in pedestrian fashion, with the run-rate never climbing above 2.3 an over on a slow pitch.

Their main focus was to see the day through and it showed in the exaggerated way Smith did almost everything. He shouldered arms as though he was auditioning for a deodorant advertisement, raising his bat above his head and leaning on his left hip as he let the ball through to Matt Prior. Although he had trouble getting back and across to the angle of James Anderson, Smith showed a determination that implied it would take a huge effort to move him.

The lack of runs did nothing to frustrate Smith, either. He left as though he could do it for the rest of the series, with astute awareness of where his off stump was. When he could play a shot, he did it with the care of a man escaping prison.

Amla provided a perfect foil at the other end. Nothing he did looked like an effort. Everything happened with the stillness and calm that he has become known for as his patience stood as intact. The only time it dipped was when he offered a chance off Ravi Bopara's bowling late on the second day.

Amla did not falter again in his innings and rolled the classy cover drive off his bat in the fifth over of the morning. He stood tall to thread the ball through the gap, an establishing shot for the many more back-foot strokes he would produce as the day went on. Amla settled faster than Smith, who at one stage confessed to wondering how the No.3 had managed to time a shot so well when he was "scrapping for runs at the other end."

Smith's struggle was exacerbated by the tense duel he was engaged in with Graeme Swann as the offspinner worked from around the wicket to try and get the edge or an lbw. There was an inside-edge that evaded short leg, a leading edge that went straight to the ground and an outside edge that ended up at third man. There was also an appeal for a ball that did not spin enough and another for one with too much bounce. The ball turned past Smith's bat numerous times but still he survived it all.

He also survived 17 balls and 20 minutes on 48, while Amla brought up his half-century in quiet fashion with a single to mid-on. Then Smith enjoyed a small psychological victory when he reached 50 off Swann with a flick through the leg-side.

By the time the milestone had come up, Smith had faced 18 more balls than he did during his previous slowest 50, eight years ago in Galle and only played four shots on the off side. But, he had released pressure and grown in fluency after seeing plenty of bowling outside the off stump. "As much as England tried to frustrate me, I tried to frustrate to them," he said.

In the end, it was obvious which one out-frustrated the other. Smith and Amla escalated the run-rate in the second hour of the morning session to over 5.5, each accumulating in their own way. Smith clobbered the ball with the weight of a hearty steak and ale pie while Amla was able to place the ball into areas with an attention to detail as intricate as lace.

England's bowlers had to change tack and bowl straighter. Smith could continue to squirt runs on the leg side as Amla played all around the field. While they grew in confidence, the attack receded, eventually allowing the pair to pull off the best contrast of them all. The lunch break was sandwiched between their centuries but it did not need an interval to make a distinction that was already so obvious. Smith had willed himself to a hundred, Amla had played himself there.

The Oval has witnessed some glorious contrasts. The 197-run stand between the Waugh brothers 11 years ago was a mosaic of Steve's extreme determination while battling a calf injury and Mark's skilfully attractive strokeplay. Now it can add Smith's unrelenting grit and Amla's fountain of finesse to that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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