South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 3rd day January 4, 2016

Serene Amla steers SA towards safety

South Africa 353 for 3 (Amla 157*, du Plessis 51*) trail England 629 for 6 dec by 276 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

It was a good day for batting so Hashim Amla did just that. He was in situ all day, an elegant figure bringing repose to South African cricket. Everything will be fine, he soothed as he repelled England's attempts to force victory in the second Test.

England were persistent, but the pitch was placid, and Amla entirely self-possessed. By the close of the third day, he was unbeaten on 157, a poor 2015 put behind him not by stirring deeds but with a sheen and grace that reasserted his quality. A deficit of 276 insists that much work remains to be done, but there are seven wickets intact to do it.

South Africa made 212 on an attritional day. They made it very quietly. It was all a striking contrast to the fun of the fair on the previous day when Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow rattled up 196 in the morning session alone. Test cricket's appeal lies in the fact that it is a game of many moods - and this was quite a jolt. No matter: South Africa's captain had served his side admirably in times of need.

England will recall Amla's triple-century at The Oval in 2012 and fear what may still lies ahead. But the artist is painting slowly. He made 93 in the day, only 25 in a final session where England became footsore and interest waned. You will find some of the travelling supporters traipsing around Table Mountain on Tuesday.

At least England were spared a wicketless day, their optimism stirred just once when AB de Villiers fell 20 minutes before tea. De Villiers departed on 88, pulling a short ball to midwicket where James Anderson held a head-high catch at the second attempt. England, who dropped three and reacted slowly to another, had finally clung on.

That breakthrough fell to Steven Finn, whose bounce and hostility in unfavourable conditions made him comfortably the most dangerous component in an attack which held South Africa in check, but struggled to find solace.

Hashim Amla recorded his 24th Test hundred © AFP

There was no turn for Moeen Ali - 37C is forecast for Tuesday and it remains to be seen if the bowlers will crack up before the pitch does - and the ball failed to swing or reverse, perhaps too blustery for the latter. South Africa were conscientious in defence and, when the batsmen did err, England's fielding was found wanting.

Amla and de Villiers dutifully set their sights on a long haul to safety, poring like senior librarians over a stand of 183 in 69 overs. South Africa failed to file away a single century stand in 2015 as they rarely justified their No. 1 Test ranking. In the first innings of the New Year, they addressed that shortcoming.

England will rue those three dropped chances, evenly spread like fumbled water bottles on a marathon. De Villiers was spared on the second evening on 5 when Joe Root spilled an opportunity engineered by Anderson; Amla allowed a let-off on 76 half an hour before lunch when this time Anderson flapped down a quick edge off Root.

That left them evens, although a bit more sulking had been evident when Root dropped the edge from Anderson. Part-time bowlers are not allowed such liberties: for them, every wicket is a bonus.

Amla also escaped on 120, Nick Compton failing to hold an acceptable chance to his left at backward point as Finn's insistence forced another opportunity.

De Villiers passed 8000 Test runs in the morning, becoming the third South African alongside Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith to achieve the feat when he struck Moeen down the ground, one of the most adventurous moments in a session characterised by sober defence. There were only 20 runs by drinks, and only 58 in the session at two runs per over, as South Africa's third-wicket pair concentrated on watchful defence.

Anderson's morning salvo was a stalemate, largely delivered outside off stump to packed off-side fields. Moeen gazed forlornly at cracks that failed to widen. Broad's hot spurt was nowhere to be seen. But Finn caused discomfort from the start, his extra bounce unsettling de Villiers who produced an uneasy edge, cut and pull in quick succession, all of which fell short of expectant fielders.

In England's innings, the second new ball had been the catalyst for Stokes and Bairstow's assault. Nobody expected such tomfoolery this time: there was work to be done. It came at 230 for 2. A daring captain might have gambled and thrown the ball at Finn, but Cook preferred the tried and trusted, Anderson and Broad. It was only when Finn appeared that things began to happen.

It would have been tough on Amla if he had been run out on 119 when Finn got a finger on a return drive from de Villiers, but Amla regained his ground in time. Stokes then won an lbw appeal from Aleem Dar when de Villiers was 85, but even as de Villiers signalled for a review, Stokes knew that the batsman had got an inside edge.

Late in the day, as Faf du Plessis also made his first Test fifty since the start of 2015, Finn responded sluggishly at mid-off to a leading edge off Anderson. Even Alex Hales had a trundle: trendy sunnies, sleeves down, collar up - shades off a more famous Nottinghamshire offspinner, sadly retired in his prime. Then Hales released something as fluffy and innocuous as a kitten. Du Plessis smiled wanly, as if he would rather have been met by a rabid hyena, but survived.

The final hour was a stalemate, with approaching clouds encouraging both sides to wonder if they could get off the field. Amla's solid defence, smooth drives and wristy manoeuvres were now typed repetitiously on English minds. South Africa, on a ground where they have been so successful, had rediscovered their spine.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps