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February 6, 2010
It's one of cricket's great mysteries that Jacques Kallis, with his impeccable technique, never mastered English conditions. He made a century on his first tour in 1998, but the returns since, diminished alarmingly. In 2008, he arrived in the old country firmly established as one of the greats of the modern game, and proceeded to have the sort of tour that has ended careers. Apart from a 64 at Edgbaston, he never managed to exceed 13, and there were more than a few English columnists who reckoned that the end was nigh.
Hashim Amla started that series with a match-saving century at Lord's, but then lost his rhythm as South Africa seized control in Headingley and Birmingham. He too had bad memories of the English. Back in 2004-05, after a nervous debut in India, he made just 36 runs in Durban and Cape Town. Stephen Harmison, Simon Jones, Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff were at the peak of their powers and Amla, groomed for leadership from the time he was at Durban Boys' High School, found them too hot to handle. "Too much, too soon," said the wiser heads. "Quota player", whispered the cynics.
Being dropped after the victory at Newlands was the best thing that could have happened to him. Had he been part of the side annihilated home and away by Australia a year later, a fledging career might have ended with broken dreams of flight. Instead, he went back to the Dolphins, smoothed out some of the rougher edges in his game, and returned determined to prove the doubters wrong. The 149 at Newlands against New Zealand sent him on his way, and he's seldom had to look back since.
The last two years have been especially productive, with five centuries in 22 Tests and an average of 51.69. His solidity at what is perhaps the most crucial position in the batting order has also freed Kallis to play with a freedom that few associated with his game. After that disastrous trip to England, Kallis arrived in Australia - another unhappy hunting ground till then - with much to do to rebuild his reputation. And though it is the names of Graeme Smith, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy that are initially recalled when people talk of that remarkable run chase at the WACA, Kallis more than played his part with two half-centuries and aggressive strokeplay that infused a belief that South Africa had never had, on previous trips across the Indian Ocean.
Amla too played his part in that triumph, playing second fiddle to Smith as they overcame the early loss of Neil McKenzie. And while he grew into his role, Kallis freed himself of the shackles and illustrated why it was so foolish to stereotype him as a one-paced wonder. Since the beginning of that Australian tour, Kallis has scored seven runs more for every 100 balls that he's faced. The critics often forgot that like Rahul Dravid for India, Kallis played a certain way because he was the implacable foundation of his team. With Amla ready to don that mantle, Kallis could take on the bowlers knowing that his exit didn't necessarily spell doom for the side.
When they came together on Saturday morning, South Africa were in disarray. Ashwell Prince had been unlucky, with no review system in place to reprieve him, and Smith had been undone by inward movement from Zaheer Khan. But slowly, and with the steadiness you associate with both men, they resuscitated the innings. Kallis was in prime form, having scored two centuries against England, and Amla was more than content to turn the strike over in the second hour. Though there was slow turn for both Amit Mishra and Harbhajan Singh, a couple of mighty cleaves from the Kallis' bat quickly told India that they wouldn't be allowed to dictate terms.
As Kallis began to play strokes with increasing fluency, the field scattered, and the singles were always there for the taking. "Their powers of concentration were exceptional," said Kepler Wessels, the batting consultant, after the day's play. "The shot selection was very good. I don't think you'll often see Harbhajan go through a day without bowling a maiden."
In his view, Kallis' innings was yet another example of a man performing at the peak of his powers. "As he's grown in stature, he's got his game so well worked out," said Wessels. "He knows exactly how to bat in different conditions. He can bat time, assess the situation and capitalise when the time's right."
Amla's role was no less significant. Having taken 132 balls to ease to a half-century, he was much more decisive in the final session, taking just a further 72 balls for his hundred. There were a couple of edges off the impressive Zaheer that might have gone to hand on another day, and a few airy wafts against Mishra, but by and large he was the perfect foil. "That No.3 slot, as we saw today, is such an important position," said Wessels. "Hashim has done very well now for a couple of years. He's very strong mentally, and I'm not surprised that he got runs today. His preparation has been very very good."
The same couldn't be said of India, whose muddled squad selection and injury woes have left them in a pickle. Zaheer was superb in his opening spell and looked the most likely to break through even when he returned, while Ishant Sharma and Mishra toiled diligently in unhelpful conditions. Harbhajan was poor though, apparently not having watched how Graeme Swann used an attacking outside-off stump line to snare several South African wickets in the recent series.
On a slow and low pitch, all is not lost for the hosts. But the opening day certainly belonged to the master and his apprentice. Solid in defence, swift between the wickets and certain about which balls to punish, they had India chasing shadows all day long.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala