WATCH - Pandya runs out Amla
Direct hit at the non-striker's end as Pandya swivels and pulls off a sensational throw
Hashim Amla chose one of the more tricky moments in the day to show that he is still as classy as they come.
Aiden Markram had been dismissed by R Ashwin for 94, AB de Villiers was new to the wicket, which did not have as much pace and bounce that Faf du Plessis wanted and took the turn the captain most definitely did not want, and the leg side was packed. Ashwin delivered a length ball on middle stump and Amla did not quite get to the pitch of it but his wrists did the rest.
It was only a small twist of the hands but a perfect one that allowed him to pierce the infield. It was only a small amount of force applied to the shot, but the right amount, that sent it to the boundary. It was Hashim Amla at his elegant best.
Before that, Amla had hit five other fours, all beautifully laced with his delicate touch but none quite as delicious to look at. He had also inside-edged onto his pad, slashed and missed, driven in the air and gave Hardik Pandya a chance to take a screamer at midwicket, defended so softly that he had to kick the ball away as it rolled towards off stump and tried a few premeditated sweeps that just looked a little ugly. Amla did not enjoy the most fluent start to his innings but then came that shot.
In a period in which the consistency of Amla's form has been questionable - his three hundreds in 2017 came against weak Sri Lankan and Bangladesh attacks at home - and his temperament a touch on the impatient side, that shot was the reassurance that even against more challenging packs, Amla is still ace.
Just to make sure no-one got carried away, three balls after that, he provided Parthiv Patel with a thin edge down the leg side that should have been taken. From there, Amla did not look back. Part of what makes Amla so prolific is that he has often been able to capitalise on opportunities where he has been let off the hook. Every batsman presents their opposition with chances, few make them pay for missing those chances as much as Amla.
While de Villiers struggled to adjust to the (lack of) pace of the pitch, Amla kept South Africa's energy high. His slash through point the ball after tea was one of the strongest shows of his intent; his drive down the ground off Ashwin five overs later showed off his timing and his crunch through the covers that brought up his fifty was another example of his unmatched wristwork, particularly among his team-mates.
In an innings that needed an anchor even after opener Markram, who has now passed the test of playing against a top-eight attack, Amla held South Africa together. For the first hour of the third session, it seemed little could go wrong for South Africa, even when de Villiers dragged one on. Amla appeared as in charge as ever, even on an unusually slow surface at venue that has now become his most successful.
As of Saturday, SuperSport Park is the place Amla has scored more Test runs than at at any other ground. He has played 12 Tests here, compared to 17 at Newlands, his most visited venue, and two more than Kingsmead and Wanderers, the only other places where he has played at least 10 Tests.
Amla's average at Centurion sits a 80.25, almost double than in Cape Town (44.42), four times that of his home ground in Durban (20.64) and still significantly more than his other favourite ground, Wanderers, where he averages 54.75. He has the most runs by any batsman in Centurion where his haul of scoring 50 or more 12 times in 17 innings includes four hundreds and one double-hundred.
Exactly why Amla has prospered on this pitch is difficult to pin down - it could have something to do with the pace of ball on bat - though on Saturday that would not have been the case. This surface asked for more of a grind, for batsmen to really work out how to score runs rather than have them dished up for them. Though Amla prefers the latter, a trickier pitch demanded more application from him, just the sort of thing he needed to find his fight again.
For that hour after tea, when India seemed to let things drift, it seemed that Amla could add another three-figure score to his tally at SuperSport Park but as the last 10 overs began and Amla entered the 80s, he was run-out racing for the non-striker's end after du Plessis wanted to push for a single.
It was a mistake. Given how South Africa were going at that point, the heat Amla had batted in for most of the day and the illogicality of trying anything silly, it was a mistake that opened the door for India. Quinton de Kock's wafting at an Ashwin delivery with no footwork, and Vernon Philander's run-out gave India an even share of the spoils on the first day.
South Africa claimed the first session and India the last hour but the place belongs to Hashim Amla and he has the numbers to show it.