Amla's under-stated excellence gives South Africa the platform they have craved

Amla returns to his best to defy England (1:09)

Firdose Moonda reports from Trent Bridge as Hashim Amla puts South Africa in command with a classy, controlled innings (1:09)

Hashim Amla's career won't be remembered for this innings. And it may not be remembered for any of the 26 innings that have preceded this either, because the last 18 months have been unusually tough on him.

Since giving up the captaincy in the first week of 2016, after England posted 629 for 6 on a pitch prepared as a balm to the 241-run drubbing South Africa took the week before, and scoring a serene double-hundred in response, Amla has played 15 Tests including this one, and scored a half-century or more seven times. That doesn't sound too bad - in fact a lot of players would quite happily take that - but considering that, at the peak of his powers, Amla would score a fifty in every third innings, it was the sign of a slump. And it was made more glaring by the other issues in South Africa's line-up.

AB de Villiers has not played Tests since that England series, JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis took turns in being dropped during that series, and Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock have had to grow into their roles since that series, so when Amla underperformed, it became an eyesore. His aggression and impatience were put down to the inevitable consequences of a T20-obsessed landscape, his lack of footwork and slower reflexes, the result of age. But Amla commands immense respect so any suggestion of a decline was only whispered and then drowned out with reminders of how much South Africa still need him. In this match, more so than usual.

The opening pair are still unsettled, so Amla has been called on before 10 overs were up in all four innings on this tour so far. He still has to see off the new ball and do a repair job before he can begin building his own innings and a partnership, he is still seen as the steady hand. Now, in Nottingham, he has looked it too.

Amla approached his second innings with the mixture of care and confidence that made him such a classy player. On the second evening, he took on the short ball and the some of the spin, then defended the rest, and went to the end of play on 23 off 47 balls. Stable but not spectacular.

With three days left in the game, and much riding on the way South Africa batted on the third morning in what remained bowler-friendly conditions, the Amla of old was on display. He added just two runs to his overnight score off the first 19 balls he faced, resolutely defending against James Anderson and Stuart Broad, before he found himself stuck in his crease against a beauty of a ball from Broad and had nowhere to move when it took the faintest of edges.

And yet, there was hardly an appeal. The memories of a wasted review in the fifth over the evening before were fresh, the knowledge that it would be a 52-over wait before the DRS would be topped up might have swayed it, and England decided not to go upstairs. Had they made use of the third umpire, Amla's innings would have ended on 25. But without missed opportunities and smidgens of luck, sport would become painfully predictable, and this will merely go down as a "what-if" for a England and a "thank-goodness" for Amla. He certainly made it count.

For the rest of the morning, he did what his team needed him to do which was not much more than occupy the crease. There was no need to rush, with almost three days left in the game, and the lead slowly growing. There was more of a need to gnaw away at time, so that any thoughts England had of saving the game or chasing a record target could be blotted out. Amla was there to do the blotting. He let Dean Elgar keep strike and punish the bad balls. He understood his role was one of presence, not power.

Amla faced 34 balls before he showed some signs of irritation and slashed at a wide ball, but his placement was wide enough of gully for it not to matter. He faced another three deliveries before he took on Liam Dawson, his first shot of intent. Three more followed, in Dawson's next over, all beautifully timed strokes, the first two accompanied with shimmies down the track and the third, a wristy shot through midwicket. Just as Amla was hitting his stride, South Africa lost Elgar and de Kock in successive overs and so Amla reverted to staying, not striking.

After lunch, he was joined by his captain du Plessis, who also enjoys the slow-burn. Together, the pair were dour but determined. They dug in. They ground England down. They didn't try anything more dramatic.

Again, there was a time when Amla started to get more adventurous. It was when Moeen Ali came on for the first time in the day. Amla brought out the paddle-sweep, then a flick off Broad and another aerial drive off Dawson. He was starting to sense a century and, because he didn't get there, there's a fair chance this innings will disappear into a number on a scorecard. It shouldn't.

Amla has not played so telling an innings to win a match in a while. He has saved games with knocks like his double hundred against England and a century against Sri Lanka in Colombo in the winter of 2014, but to win a match, you have to go as far back as Port Elizabeth 2014 when Amla scored quickly enough for the declaration to come at the right time for the bowlers to beat the weather and Australia. That was more than three years ago.

So maybe Hashim Amla's career won't be remembered for this match. But if his twin fifties form the spine of a South African win and light the fire for a comeback in the series, maybe some part of it should be.