Amla finds the right tempo
Hashim Amla watched five of the first eight deliveries he faced go through to Brad Haddin. The other three, he defended. Twenty-two balls and half an hour after coming to the crease, Amla scored his first boundary, off a ball that was angled on his hips, which he flicked through the leg-side.
His was the third individual performance of the match, after AB de Villiers and Ashwell Prince's first innings efforts, that showed the temperament and technique required to bat in Test cricket. But, it was the best example of the type of execution that the longer form of the game requires.
While Shane Watson and Jacques Rudolph played as though they were under instructions to ensure an early end, Amla was happy to leave some balls, defend others and push some into the gap for an ambled single. On the 13 occasions, when he could find the boundary, he did. Amla's innings brought serenity to the series that has been missing so far, with frenetic batting and poor shot selection negating the efforts of high run-rates and extravagant strokeplay.
In Cape Town, Amla played a classy knock, with Graeme Smith on the other end fighting his way back into form. Under the circumstances, on a spicy pitch, with wickets falling at the mere sight of a bowler, Amla's innings was integral to South Africa's win. With Smith's the more emotive knock, Amla's has had to be content with its place in the shadows of Smith's comeback, but its importance has been reflected in the context of this game.
When other batsmen have been rushed into shots or being tempted by the state of the pitch, Amla has played with the right blend of caution and intent to fashion a Test innings. He has refused to be hurried and remained stoic in his cause to construct an innings, rather than simply allow one to land on the pitch. "Hashim played with great responsibility over the last couple of months," Jacques Rudolph said.
It probably helps that Amla was not involved in the IPL and the Champions League T20 and spent the spring playing first-class cricket. He did not need to change tempo or build the stamina required for a long stint at the crease, something which other South African batsmen have lacked. "Maybe we are guilty of being in too much of a hurry in the first innings, maybe we were a bit anxious, given the importance of the game," Russell Domingo, South Africa's assistant coach, said.
Since January, South Africa's players have competed in an ODI series against India, the World Cup, the IPL, the Champions League T20 and a T20 and ODI series against Australia. Many of them are simply not Test match fit and Domingo believes they probably still aren't.
"It's still pretty early in our Test cricket, I wouldn't say we have completely adjusted," Domingo said. "Maybe some of those dismissals can be attributed to that in the first innings, where the guys are still a little it loose and trying to find their way. We are one day closer to getting back into proper Test mode but probably not quite there yet."
One of the players who should be there is comeback opening batsmen Rudolph, who has had time playing first-class cricket but has yet to translate that. This season Rudolph is the leading run-scorer in the SuperSport Series, with 592 runs from four matches, including a double hundred. His Test scores read: 18, 14, 30 and 24 and although they got progressively better, they spin a yarn of potential wasted. Rudolph has looked confident at the crease, especially when driving but as he soon as he has started to find his first-class stride, has been stopped.
"When you get recalled, you are desperate to get that one score so that you know you're back in," HD Ackerman, the former Test opening batsmen said. "So, you forget about the how you constructed all those other hundreds. The big thing is that Jacques has looked as though he belongs and he is at home in international cricket."
Rudolph did not dispute that he feels comfortable in his country's whites but admits that he should have more to show for his assurance. "I've had a four starts now and it's time for me to go on to the big one," he said.
In South Africa's second innings, Rudolph was out to a top edge after a pulling a Pat Cummins delivery that seemed to surprise him. "It's not really my game plan to pull up front," he said. "It was one of those balls where you see it and you act instinctively on it. In hindsight, I wouldn't play it again."
Impulsive batting like that has troubled batsmen from both sides in the series and it is something that Ackerman says is a result of the growth of shorter formats. Instead of blaming 20-over cricket for breeding bad habits, Ackerman said it has, like many other stimulants, been the cause of players letting go of certain inhibitions.
"Once players began to understand their capabilities, which is something T20 cricket may have taught them, they are more prepared to take risks," he said. "In T20 cricket, there are no slips, so you could get one to third-man, and if you are lucky, you may even get four but in Test cricket, there are slips so if you play an expansive shot and you get it wrong, you will get caught."
The high run-rates in this Test match, have given Ackerman a reason to remind players what the longest form of the game is all about. Test cricket is still played over five days and that's the real Test - it's about the resilience of players," he said. "Hashim Amla is playing a proper Test innings out there."
Amla ended the day unbeaten on 89, with his camp saying their main focus will be to score briskly but safely enough in the 11 overs before the second new ball to allow South Africa to bat into the afternoon. Standard instructions for a Test match. Luckily, South Africa have the one player in the batting line-up who is best place to understand and carry them out, at the crease.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent