Amla gesture to SA team ethic
The usually undemonstrative Hashim Amla did a strange thing when he reached his century at Lord's. He demonstrated something. A television set drawn mid-air was his way of dedicating the ton to the team's video analyst, Prassana Agoram, one of the squadron of back-room staff who have all been credited with making the South African team the strong unit they have become.
"It was just an acknowledgment of the amount of work he puts in," Amla said, when explaining his gesture. "He said something really inspirational to me before the series which is why I did it." Amla would not reveal what Agoram had said, saying "it's a personal thing" but his acknowledgment was a telling detail about the new culture of the South African team.
Gary Kirsten has created a community, which Dale Steyn said "trusts" each other as part of the key to their success. Apart from a head coach, an assistant coach, a bowling coach and the usual medical and administrative staff - physiotherapist, media manager and logistics manager, they also have a performance director in Paddy Upton and an adventurer in Mike Horn. Both are not with the team all the time but their influence is obvious.
Ever since the Switzerland bonding exercise at Horn's home, South Africa have appeared mentally tougher than they have ever been before. They have been willing to reach deeper, pull harder, think bigger and play tougher and it is those things that have made them the better side for large chunks of the series.
Amla was hesitant to say the change had been recent. "It's been like this for quite a few years. It's not all of a sudden," he said. "But the way some of the lower order guys came to the party has been a hallmark for the last two Tests."
Without making the point explicitly, Amla still made it. Crucial performances have come from unlikely places and South Africa have never looked out of control. "The games have ebbed and flowed in different situations and we've managed to get out of bad situations at times," Amla said.
The ability to bat on even when runs are not being scored, something only Jonny Bairstow was able to muster for England, has been one of the things that set South Africa apart. At Leeds, Alviro Petersen and Jacques Rudolph battled through a tricky first hour, at Lord's, Amla and Dale Steyn did it. "We were in a delicate position but we knew we had to hang in there for about 30 minutes and that really set up the day for us. Then Vernon and Morne showed a lot of guts as well later on," Amla said.
The ability to take wickets, even on pitches that look like batting could continue for months on, has been the other. South Africa took 20 wickets at The Oval where England could only manage two, on a surface far less helpful than the one at Lord's. Even though a draw will still give them the series win and No.1 ranking, Amla said they have bigger targets in their sights.
"We are thinking of the win. We do understand it's going to take a lot of hard work but if we show the intensity we showed this evening, we can win."
England face the uphill battle of needing to score over 330 runs on a fifth day pitch, something Amla said is hard enough without bigger things at stake. "Any score above 300 is a very difficult ask," he said. "I think any score above 250, especially on the last innings when the wicket is deteriorating is difficult."
Asked if South Africa will think up new ways to keep England up against it, Amla said they do not need to, because the situation is fraught enough for their opposition. "The wicket itself is good to bat on but in the last innings, there is this thing called pressure that exists. When we were batting we felt it. England have to make the play and if we hit our areas for long enough, they are going to have look to score. We are going to try and stick to our plan. That situation alone creates enough pressure."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent