India v South Africa, 1st Test, Nagpur, 2nd day February 7, 2010

Hashim Amla takes centrestage

N Hunter

As they prepared to take their seats for the press conference, Jacques Kallis insisted that Hashim Amla sit in the middle, between him and the media manager. "The man who makes 250 deserves that," he said with a grin.

The other day, Graeme Smith had mentioned that the biggest loss to the Indian batting in the absence of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman would be their calming influence. It wouldn't have sounded arrogant if the South African captain had gone on to heap similar praise on his own pair of Kallis and Amla. If not for their battle-hardened approach, South Africa might never have raised a 500-plus total having lost their openers with just six runs on the board.

Kallis has been the architect of many successful back-to-the-wall efforts in the past, and, hence the cynosure of all eyes on the second morning. But a diffident approach and some smart bowling from the Indian spinners on a pitch increasingly taking sharp turn robbed him of a maiden double-century. Curiously, despite playing such a strong hand in laying a solid foundation, doubts were raised about whether Kallis had succumbed to nerves standing at the doorstep of maiden double. He rubbished such minute introspection by saying he was not going to "lose any sleep" over missing out another opportunity to reach the elusive milestone.

But one man who is bound sleep soundly is the soft-spoken Amla, who carried forward the torch for the second successive day admirably. Even the loss of Kallis immediately into the second hour of the morning did not distract him as he took up the cudgels and assisted his partners, first AB de Villiers and then Mark Boucher, in making sure South Africa's dominance had a firm grip over the Indian bowling.

Obviously in an effort spanning more than 11 hours, bumps were meant to be encountered and Amla suffered them early today. In the hour leading up to lunch Amit Mishra and Harbhajan Singh found ample turn from the pitch, sometimes exaggerated. Amla tried to charge Harbhajan but was not convincing and was repeatedly beaten by Mishra's legbreaks.

A damning stat that highlights one of his struggles came against Mishra: Amla faced 139 balls from the leg spinner for just 34 runs. "There were a few tough parts: the reverse swing and facing the spinners," said Amla later. "Mishra beat the bat many, many times but in a way you don't look back and sigh."

The biggest challenge was to extend his vigil as long as possible. On his first tour to the country of his ancestors in 2004-05, Amla flattered to deceive with scores of 24 and 2 on debut, and in the next, in 2008, he had just started to fulfill his promise with 307 runs at 61.40. Back then he was still fighting doubts in his mind and at the same time clearing doubts of the outsiders about his presence in the squad. But now, with his place secure in the South African top order, and his name on the team list solely on merit and not his skin colour, Amla has emerged out the dressing room secure in mind and ability.

He had played an influential hand in the drawn series against England at home last month which allowed South Africa to retain the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy. In the first Test in Centurion a rampant England South Africa on the mat at 46 for 4 in the second innings, but Amla stood strong to score a reassuring century and drive the opponents back. Though he failed to reach the three-figure mark again in the series, two handsome fifties made Amla one of he leading batsmen in the series.

"He has certainly come in a long way from the last time he toured India," said Kallis, pointing out how Amla's presence gave the batting order a solid look. While Kallis spoke, Amla was still, head down - just like when he bats. The silent learner. But he surely would've felt satisfied with Kallis' next compliment. "He is a fantastic guy to bat with. He is a very calming influence on all the players. The way he has developed his game has been fantastic. People wrote him off early on but the tough character he is, he has proved everyone wrong. He is going to score a lot of runs for South Africa in very important situations."

There were more bouquets on the way. One arrived from India's coach Gary Kirsten, who at one time had been Amla's coach at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria. "I always knew the time was going to come when he would have the ability to get big hundreds for his country. That was evident way back," said Kirsten, who has played some marathon innings for South Africa. "It was a superb innings, batting with Jacques and coming in at the time they did. He knows how to bat long periods of time. Full credit to him, and well done."

Amla was generous in the acceptance of all the praise but pointed out that his efforts had put his team in a strong position. "Scoring a maiden double-hundred on Indian soil is a momentous occasion. I am really grateful that I'd the opportunity but more important was to get the team in the best position. I've been more fortunate and it has been a good learning experience on both occasions, watching it [the triple-century stand with Kallis] from the non-striker's end."