Two 34-year-olds showed — if we needed proof — that there is no substitute for experience, as South Africa stretched their lead from useful to dominant and on, surely, to impregnable. Hashim Amla, the heart rate never above 100 bpm (well, almost never, there might have been one ball), gave a masterclass on how to construct a Test innings. Jimmy Anderson, on his favourite ground, bowled with skill and a low cunning that deserved more reward than the scorebook suggests.
Perhaps not every batsman would welcome a day for which the job description consists of one word: “Bat”. But Amla, 23 not out overnight, his team’s lead 205, the pitch at its best, the match still 45 overs from its halfway mark — the boots were outside the front door, waiting to be filled. An opportunity is also a challenge, and some players might have felt a tinge of anxiety at that set-up, a whole day simply too much for a white-ball specialist (LINK to Vaughan copy) to contemplate. Others may have felt the weight of responsibility to set a tempo, to take the game away from the opposition, to demonstrate positive body language or some other faddish priority.
Not Amla. He has batted in England often enough to know that it’s a bowler’s game until the clock strikes 12, and that it might be a bowler’s game long after that too. He knew that England’s champion seamers would go hard at him, their ears ringing with last night’s rebuke and this morning’s encouragement after a collectively poor day on Saturday. He knew that the day would only get easier the longer he spent at the crease, the more times the bowlers ran in, his bat growing ever wider in their vision. He would bide his time.
Knowing it caused his downfall in the first innings, and that England fancied it, Amla sheathed his aerial hook and concentrated on eliminating risk from a game that had already accumulated over 8000 Test runs. The opportunities to score were taken but not sought. The pace of his innings was a natural consequence of the bowling, the old-fashioned way. He ventured away from this policy twice: once when airily edging Stuart Broad to Jonny Bairstow eliciting a half-hearted appeal and no review (the feather, if felt, may have raised that heart rate a smidgeon); and secondly when, having lined up the hapless Liam Dawson for a couple of overs, greeting the spinner’s third with two fours and a six, an option thus denied to Joe Root for a few hours at least.
Those of us who saw Amla’s monument at The Oval in 2012 were entering familiar territory. Five year ago — in more favourable batting conditions — he had done pretty much the same thing, never hurried, leaning on his bat at the non-striker’s end, the match under his control through output rather than puffed up posturing and power. Now, as then, little energy was wasted, no spats pursued with bowlers, no sign of frustration evident when a scratchy Dean Elgar and jumpy Quinton de Kock were dismissed in the space of five balls.
Wishing to send Dawson back up the creek without a paddle was his downfall, smacking the returning bowler over his head for a one-bounce six, then hitting across the line to be out lbw on review for 87, the highest score of the match so far. Interviewed before play, Amla’s glasses and piercing look gave him a professorial mien; his innings constituted a doctoral thesis on how to play the ideal innings for the match circumstances.
Anderson was having a more challenging day. His morning assault had been blunted by Elgar and Amla, with due respect to the active Test bowler with the most wickets (a full 60 ahead of Dale Steyn). Though the ball did not swing much, Anderson moved it enough, in the air and off the seam, both ways, to cause plenty of problems, his good work going unrewarded. His second spell brought the wicket of de Kock, 90 minutes of whom could have brought forward a declaration by at least half a session.
Soon after tea, Anderson had a second new ball in hand, seven wickets to his name and power to add. Conditions, as they have been later on all three days, were at their best for batting, the sun out, the clouds puffy rather than leaden. Faf du Plessis was well set, his half-century notched in what was proving to be a tremendous match for the South African skipper, and was joined by Vernon Philander, looking a spot high at No. 7 but off the back of a fifty of his own in the first dig.
Though Anderson was lightly used by Root (just 16 overs in the first 80) the walk back to the mark was weary, the now famous Northern grumpiness evident in the gait if not words and deeds. The run to the crease was still bouncy, the body as lithe as it was when he made his debut, very raw, just a few months out of his teens and, most importantly, the wrist and fingers were right behind the ball.
Classical, conventional swing was the result, the ball snaking away from the outside edge, demanding to be watched all the way on to the bat, played under the eyes with soft hands, a predatory slip cordon waiting to pounce. It was never quite up for the drive, never quite back for the cut, but the odd one, in that curious way that always seems to happen, clung to its leg stump line to be tucked off the body for one. The breakthrough was not forthcoming, but a spell of four overs for just four runs showed how the visitors were happy just to see him of, despite being so far ahead in the game.
The two old-timers were still the best at what they did for their sides, and they knew it. Both had games that had developed from very personal techniques (Amla’s pick-up to gully; Jimmy’s head-down delivery stride) and both had ironed out the worst of their quirks, retaining only the aspects that helped them. Both had well over a decade of Test cricket behind them and over a century of caps, and both had endured time out of the international game in their younger days to work on developing themselves in domestic competitions, coming back stronger for it. When they finally hang up their boots, they’ll look back on some fine personal duels and smile. And so will we.