Class: Hashim Amla plays a cut backward of point as Matthew Wade looks on. Photo: Reuters
AS THE light faded on a gloomy afternoon in Brisbane, Hashim Amla quietly crept towards a milestone that will confirm him - if there was any doubt - as the world's best batsman right now. He did it his way, studiously and without theatrics, inching inexorably towards a third century in three consecutive Tests against Australia, and towards Australian captain Michael Clarke's 782 calendar year runs.
His effortless accumulation epitomised the day, the first in the series to determine ranking system supremacy in the Test format, and a long one in the field for the host side. If Clarke's ambitious posse of fast bowlers thought South Africa's visiting batsmen were going to fold like India's dominoes of last summer, they were dealt a rude reality check.
Amla, unflinching almost throughout, was the wall that an ageing Rahul Dravid was not last summer, and threatens to become an unbudgeable thorn in Australia's side. According to the leaked pre-Test dossier on the Proteas' pros and cons, Australia was meant to unsettle the 29-year-old first drop by peppering him with short balls, and with verbal bouncers.
Day one, first Test - Australia v South Africa
Graeme Smith plays a cover drive. Photo: Getty Images
If they said anything, it did not get through. Amla's concentration, his tunnel vision, is such that it is difficult to imagine any comment or insult putting him in a flap. He compiles with such meticulous, emotionless and cold-eyed authority you get the impression he would be impossible to have an argument with. Silence, in this case, is golden.
The result was only frustration for Clarke's men, pressing and prodding with bowling change after change but unable to dislodge the immovable Proteas No. 3. Peter Siddle dropped a caught-and-bowled opportunity from Amla on 74, but aside from that he gave them minimal openings.
For Australia, reduced to part-timers Michael Hussey and Rob Quiney at either end late on day one, an ominous echo sounded. Only a few months ago at the Oval in London, Amla's unbeaten 311 put South Africa in a commanding position against England in the first Test, in what was also a stoush for the world No. 1 Test rating. His partner then was also Jacques Kallis, who made an unbeaten 182 of his own in a stand of 377, halted only by a declaration. Without it, four figures didn't seem beyond them.
From there Graeme Smith's relentless road warriors would not be stopped. Primarily thanks to Amla and Kallis again, the tourists - this time defending the ICC top spot - have the early ascendancy here. When play closed prematurely at the Gabba because of bad light, Amla was undefeated on 90, Kallis on 84, and South Africa, was 2-255.
Both Amla and Kallis could and should be out already. The fact that they are on their second lives is only more worrying for Australia. Amla, who first linked with the impressive Alviro Petersen (64), was given a couple of headaches in the day's dying stages by James Pattinson, Australia's most potent bowler. Perhaps he was tired.
The two-Test series between these two countries in South Africa last year is remembered for many things: the carnage of Cape Town, Clarke's brave century there and Patrick Cummins' match-winning debut in Johannesburg among them. What is often overlooked is the fact that Amla scored hundreds in both Tests. He needs six more runs on Saturday to exceed Clarke's 2012 tally as the most prolific Test run-scorer in the world, but, as the No. 2 ranked batsman in Tests and No. 1 in one-day games, few would dispute that he is already the finest.
South Africa (1st Innings)
G SMITH lbw b Pattinson 10
A PETERSEN c Hussey b Lyon 64
H AMLA not out 90
J KALLIS not out 84
Sundries (1b, 1lb, 2w, 3nb) 7
Total (2 wkts - bad light ended play) 255
Fall of wickets: 29 (Smith), 119 (Petersen)
Bowling: B Hilfenhaus 20-5-53-0 (1w), J Pattinson 20-4-53-1 (1w 1nb), P Siddle 20-4-58-0 (2nb), N Lyon 12-0-61-1, M Hussey 4-0-21-0, R Quiney 6-3-7-0.