England v South Africa, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 4th day July 22, 2012

Smith's creativity brings rewards

When Graeme Smith declared South Africa's first innings with his team 252 runs in front and four sessions left in the game, he did something South African cricketers are not known for. He got creative.

Many observers expected him to allow the record run-scoring to continue for a few more overs, especially with Jacques Kallis approaching a double hundred, before unleashing his attack for a short burst. Instead he took the situation by the scurf of the neck and handed the challenge to England's top order; the end result was four wickets which has put South Africa in prime position for victory.

Hashim Amla, who was undefeated on a South African-record 311 when he was told to stop, offered some insight into the captain's decision. "We saw the wicket is good to bat on and we'd rather have a lot of time to bowl and chase whatever we have to than bat on for 10 or 15 overs that we may need later on," Amla said, indicating that South Africa have prepared to bat again if needs be. "You'd rather be in our change-room without a doubt."

Despite the unresponsive surface, Amla believes there is something in it for South Africa's attack, particularly Imran Tahir who already has the scalp of Andrew Strauss. "There's quite a bit of rough. Even though they don't have many left-handers to come, the rough is always a danger for the left-handers so maybe Imran can get a bit there," he said.

Amla predicted a tough first hour which has been the pattern throughout the match. He negotiated two days' worth of first hours; day three when South Africa managed just 32 and day four when they scored 36. "It's tough going early doors. Fresh bowlers in these conditions are never easy."

England will know that only too well, as they faced the first hour on day two and lost three wickets in that time. With South Africa's attack proving dangerous, England face a battle early on the final morning "Dale, Morne and Vernon got the ball to move a bit," Amla said. "It's their good skill that is coming through."

Skill has been the winner in this match, whatever happens on the final day, with Amla's masterclass the highlight. His marathon innings resulted in the first triple hundred by a South African in Tests but he said it was not always easy. With Smith, he had to "just hang in there and hang in there," until conditions allowed for freer flowing play.

"Graeme batted superbly," Amla said. "His knock was a major stepping stone for us in our big total: the way he managed to grind it out. We went through patches where we didn't score a lot and then either he would score freely or I would. That's the beauty of a big partnership."

A second sizeable stand, with Kallis, guided Amla to the milestone and he credited his partner with providing "guidance," during their time together. "You keep encouraging each other as you go on and you keep building," he said. "You want to put the team in the best position as possible."

Amla had not had much time to think about his achievement by the end of the day's play but took immense satisfaction from putting his team in control. "The biggest pleasure is that we are in a really dominant position to win this position, that's the great joy. You want to contribute handsomely to the team. I try not to get into the psycho-babble about it and try and maximise opportunity."

Breaking a record and making history were things Amla had never thought about before and will not put on his to-do list in future. "I didn't ever dream about getting 300, although I would have loved to," he said. "I've always been the kind of person to never set goals. Fortunately, that means you can keep going without being limited by having set something up."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent