Steely Amla shows substance over style
As the shadows lengthened from the Pavilion End on the third evening and Stuart Broad strained to provide England the wicket that would carry them into the night with force behind them, Hashim Amla unfurled two strokes that mark him out among the rare stylists left in the game.
The first was caressed down the ground, with the ball gathering speed as it always does when it is timed well. That took him past 50, for only, hard to believe, the second time in the series. A ball later, as if to treat himself, he leaned forward to the penultimate ball the day, allowed it to come to him and opened his blade to persuade it through extra cover. Had VVS Laxman not been preoccupied with the small matter of wrapping up his career and been watching instead he would have quietly approved. Like him, Amla is a man of style and steel.
Seen in isolation, those two strokes would have fooled you. It was an innings of more steel than style. At The Oval, he had drained the spirit out of the England bowling by simply offering them no hope. Not a ball went past his bat unless he willed it to, and off the bat, he painted a wagon wheel so perfect that it would seem he didn't want to be partial to any corner of the ground. But at Lord's, with the match, the series and a dream in line, he had to wage a mighty struggle, and in its own way, it was equally impressive, and certainly as important.
Since that unbeaten 311 in his first innings of the series, he had managed only 50 in the next three. It could hardly be regarded as a sudden loss of form, but South Africa would be grateful his second hundred came in his final innings of series, and in came in conditions far tougher. James Anderson swung the ball both ways, Steven Finn was fiery, Greame Swann looked more like bowler he was expected to be at the start of the series and the openers went cheaply.
But over all else, there was a struggle within. The feet were awry, the timing was off, and strokes were uncertain. On two, he gloved a ball to Matt Prior who couldn't hold on to it, on 30 he survived a close lbw shout form Swann and in the next over he inside-edged a drive dangerously past his stumps. But mettle is tested when a batsman has to overcome the body's unwillingness to sync with the mind, and Amla hung on, scrapping, scratching, finding spaces to score runs steadily even without the fluency that is the hallmark of his batting. After Kallis fell in the dying hours, he was the man left carrying the South African dream.
A new day brought no respite. Finn gave him a torrid first hour, he sliced a lofted drive dangerously over mid-off, and couldn't find a boundary until a few overs after the lunch break. It took him to his 16th Test hundred, nine of which have come in the last three years. It is no surprise that he has also been the most prolific South African batsman in this period. His number of centuries now stands only behind Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and Gary Kirsten and at 62 Tests, Amla is at the mid-point of his career.
Watching him in his debut match against India at Kolkata, it was hard to see he would come this far. Everything about him looked exaggerated. His stance was wide to the point of ungainly, his bat swung around in the air before it found its direction and he was always moving as he played a stroke. In his first innings he was out exactly the way he looked like getting out from the moment he came in, his stumps shattered by a ball that moved in to him.
Amla is convinced that he hasn't changed a lot, and he is right in the sense that the broad basics of his game has remained the same. His stance is still wide, his bats still hangs in the air and comes down at an angle, but he has minimised his movements which gives him a solid base without compromising the essential wristyness of his batting. And because he has the ability to play late, he can hit the ball on the up on the front foot against the fast bowlers, and punch them off the back-foot against the spinners.
Before the series started, the spinner was meant to be the major difference between the sides. That Imran Tahir will end the series with nearly double the wickets of Swann's tally isn't a fair reflection of how they have bowled, it is of how expertly the South African top order have tackled Swann, and Amla has led the way. At The Oval, where the pitch was slower and lower, he stayed back and scored so easily off the back foot that Swann found it impossible to have a settled field. Altogether, he has scored a century off Swann's bowling alone - 111 off 203 balls without being dismissed - which is comfortably ahead of the second best - Kallis' 47 off 104 balls.
When he got his Lord's hundred, his teammates on the balcony celebrated with greater gusto than he did. AB de Villers clapped from a distance before giving his partner a quite a pat on the back. The only gesture Amla made was to thank his backroom staff and got around to building more runs. Ironically, the fluency returned briefly after he got his hundred and he stroked Broad for a gorgeous four through extra cover. Finn got him for the second time in the match, this time beating the outside edge of the bat, but by then he had played the defining innings of the Test.
At most times, Amla is a joy to watch. But as they stand at the doorstep of a special moment South Africa would value the substance he provides far more.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo