County stint with Surrey serves Amla well
We are told that the modern cricketer needs time off because of the rigours of the modern cricketing schedule. But sometimes, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned game time. Today, Hashim Amla showed why.
Amla crafted the 13th ODI century of his career to sculpt South Africa's big win. His was a well-paced match-winning knock which began cautiously, found its centre in a 151-run partnership with AB de Villiers, and then blossomed as it reached three figures.
It was the second time Amla had a scored a second-innings hundred on this visit to Sri Lanka - the first came in Thursday's warm-up match - and it turns out there is a very good reason for the batsman's hot-streak. "I think he prepared really well for this series by playing at Surrey for a month of two," de Villiers said. "He got his technique in order there."
Amla was the only member of South Africa's ODI squad involved in county cricket before this series, and although he was typically modest about it ("sometimes it just rolls for you and it rolls," he had said whimsically), he admitted that "playing a bit of cricket in the county stint," helped. That much was clearly evident.
Amla was able to negotiate the early parts of the innings when he battled to get the ball away on the drive and demonstrated the patience needed to profit later when it became easier to bat.
"At first, we hung there," Amla said. "Quinny got away a little but I just hung in and tried to support him in that phase. We took a little bit of time to settle and the wicket also got a little better."
So did the bowling challenge. While Sri Lanka were hopeful of tangling South Africa in a web of turn, the surface did not support that and Amla himself grew comfortable against the spinners.
"We played them on merit. It didn't turn a hell of a lot," he said. "AB and I managed to get a rhythm going and rotate the strike but as the partnership progressed, it got easier. With AB at the end, the intensity is there, and you know you're probably going to score quickly. These guys are good bowlers but the wicket didn't turn a lot."
De Villiers was similarly pleased with the surface, which he felt did not provide any obvious advantage to particular players. "It was a good wicket throughout the 90 overs. There were no demons in there," he said. "There was not a lot of turn but enough for the spinners to work with. There was also not a lot of seam movement or swing but enough to keep the seamers interested."
Despite the rich rewards on offer for the bowlers, both de Villiers and Amla, and later Kumar Sangakkara, provided ample proof that there were runs to be scored as well. In Amla's case, however, it was hardly surprising, considering the rich vein of form he was in coming into the series.
Having signed with Surrey to replace Graeme Smith, who had to return home for knee surgery, Amla played for the county from the end of May in both the long and short formats of the game, and scored three half-centuries in his last four innings.
Following the IPL which featured 11 of South Africa's current squad members, most of Amla's team-mates have had the last month off. The remaining three members, Vernon Philander, Aaron Phangiso and Ryan McLaren, have not played any matches since the end of the South African summer, something the South African management may want to address ahead of future tours in the winter.
For now, there is good news on the horizon. Two of South Africa's Test players for the upcoming series have also spent time on the county circuit. Opening batsman Alviro Petersen is with Somerset and will play one more four-day game for them before making his way to Sri Lanka next Friday. Petersen has not had many big scores, but made 73 in a county championship match last weekend and hit 155 in the beginning of June.
The other player, Kyle Abbott, who is with Hampshire, is their highest wicket-taker so far. His 36 scalps have included two five-fors and come at an average of 18.25.
South Africa, however, would do well not to get too carried away about the form these batsmen might bring to Sri Lanka. As majestic as Amla's knock was, he did ride his luck. He was dropped on 49, and was on 42 when Sri Lanka appealed and reviewed what they thought was a chance to have him caught behind.
Amla, however, was certain that his innings should not have ended there. "I heard a sound but I didn't feel anything," he said. "I obviously can't walk if I am not 100% sure that I did it."
So Amla is human after all.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent