If ever you need a dictionary definition of calm, just turn to Hashim Amla.
Ask any of his teammates how they perceive him, and they will probably share a simple one-word answer: cool. Amla doesn’t flinch, no matter what the situation is. His first century as captain, coming against Sri Lanka in the second Test at Colombo, could not have come under more intense pressure, but Amla simply absorbed it and then transferred that pressure back onto his opposition.
No less significantly, he showed his teammates that there are runs in this pitch but far more important than runs was time. He inspired a few others to dig in and get set, although the runs did not quite come for them.
The run rate ebbed and flowed and rarely passed 3.00, and with South Africa in a spot of bother, Amla made it clear that he was taking it upon himself to save the situation. The formula is simple: If it’s bad, block it; if it’s fine, knock it down and take your time.
He contributed almost half of South Africa's first-innings total—139 runs out of 282—and he spent more than eight hours doing so. The 291 dot balls in his innings did not faze him; however, they seemed to trouble his teammates. After the flurry of early-innings wickets, South Africa needed to fight back, and they did—to a point.
South Africa have been here and done that before in Test matches past. Digging in when their backs are against the wall seems to be a speciality of their time at the top, but to make that successful, everyone in the side needs to play their part.
Amla played his and even stepped in for one or two of his colleagues who failed. Alviro Petersen, Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock all looked completely dumbstruck by the mere presence of spinners, despite the fact that they were about as threatening as a toothless lapdog.
Faf du Plessis fell to a good catch behind the wickets, and AB de Villiers showed some staying power but was eventually beaten by a ball that turned just enough. De Kock forgot that he was supposed to use his feet when batting and was dismissed before he had time to find his inner Geoffrey Boycott.
JP Duminy and Amla did a fine impression of how to value your wicket, but eventually, Duminy just got too frustrated and desperate for runs and tried to take on the spinner.
Amid all this frenzy, Amla was a statue of calm, weaving a web of safety not just around his wicket but also South Africa’s Test prospects. There are two days left in the Test, around 180 overs at most. The weather forecast is looking as threatening as it has been throughout the Test, but these factors should not play on the minds of the South Africans.
Instead, they should be thinking about why they did not follow their leader, why they failed to parrot what was such a plain and simple solution. Maybe, just maybe, Amla’s efforts will have been enough to have had a significant impact on the end result of this Test. But what is most important is that South Africa learn from his efforts and make sure they do as their captain says and as he does in the second innings.
In his famous collection of epigrams, Some Fruits of Solitude, William Penn once wrote that time is what we all want but what we use worst. He’s clearly never watched Amla bat under the cosh.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.