INDIA TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA, 2018
As Amla faced only his second delivery in Centurion, he was met with the sort of reception that is generally reserved for AB de Villiers © Agencies
One is a cricket ground situated in a region known as an Afrikaans stronghold, with a pitch that is associated with pace and bounce. The other is a batsman from Durban with an Asian background, whose wristy technique would generally not be associated with such conditions.
Given Pretoria’s strong Afrikaans presence, the stereotype of your average Centurion punter is straightforward: white, beer-drinking, partial to a braai (barbecue) and, if you believe the narrative on social media, unlikely to develop an affinity for a non-drinking Muslim.
Yet to be at the ground on Saturday (January 13) was to see that divisive type of thinking about South African society proven wrong. As Hashim Amla faced up to his second delivery on the opening day of the second Test, a chant went around Centurion: ‘Hashim! Hashim! Hashim!’ It was a reception matched only by that for local hero AB de Villiers.
Funnily enough, Amla likes Centurion as well. In the course of his 82, he moved past two records. First he made Centurion his most prolific venue, surpassing the 1244 Test runs he has scored at Newlands (at an average of only 44); then he moved past Jacques Kallis (1267 runs in 16 Tests) on the list of highest run-getters at the ground, and did so in just his 12th Test here.
While Newlands will always have a special place for Amla as the place he made 149 on his return to the South African side, and is a venue where he has some memorable innings – the double-century against England that returned him to form two years ago, for example – his consistency at Centurion is unreal. In 17 innings here, he has passed fifty on 12 occasions, and his five hundreds mean he averages 80. Not a bad place, then to be coming to just as questions about his lack of runs against serious opponents were starting to be asked.
But as familiar and friendly as the venue might have felt, this was no ordinary Centurion pitch. When Amla came to the crease, R Ashwin was just getting into his stride as he discovered conditions surprisingly to his liking. South Africa had asked for pace and bounce. Ashwin was getting the bounce and also a little turn – enough for Dean Elgar to become unsettled and nudge one straight to silly mid-off. The spinner’s third ball to Amla spun, found a hint of the bat’s edge, some pad, and almost carried to short leg.
“We didn’t expect there to be so much assistance for him,” Aiden Markram said of Ashwin. “He was difficult to face, he is difficult to face on a flat wicket as well, so it did work out well for him I suppose. It will be interesting to see if the pitch will get harder and if it will continue to spin like it did, or if it spun like that because of the grass covering. We’ll see in the next couple of days.”
For Markram, this is just the beginning of what is likely to become a long and productive alliance. © BCCI
Two sublime shots to the boundary allowed Amla to settle: a back-foot punch through extra cover off Ashwin, and a front-foot glance past mid-on off Jasprit Bumrah. The Amla of old looked to be returning, and he brought his old luck as well. According to CricProf, only Alastair Cook (56) has been dropped more often than the 44 lives granted to Amla since the beginning of 2006. Surely no batsmen have added more runs after being dropped than Amla has, and he made the most of his reprieves on 14 and 30.
His real fluency only came after tea. Having gone to the interval on 35 from 77 deliveries, Amla began the third session by punishing a wide delivery from Bumrah to the boundary, kickstarting a period when he added 40 runs from 54 balls. His productivity made up for a surprisingly sticky innings from AB de Villiers. Only an athletic run-out from Hardik Pandya denied a 29th Test century.
The other South African batsman who looked certain for three figures is also familiar with Centurion. Markram attended Pretoria Boys High, just 12km north of Centurion as the crow flies, the right-hander grew up watching cricket on the ground’s iconic grass banks. It took some time before he was playing at the venue, but he has made up for it in recent times.
After finally cracking the Titans side in 2016/17, Markram hit 162 in his first knock at Centurion. He ended the season by scoring 161 from 123 to set the Titans up for a huge victory in the final of the Momentum One-Day Cup, a knock that ingrained him in the public consciousness. Appointed captain of the Titans ahead of the current season, he started his reign with 119 and 87 at Centurion.
It was no surprise to see him begin his Proteas career at the ground with an outward confidence, even if inwardly he was feeling the pressure. “It was quite stressful, I was quite nervous,” he said. “It helps to have Dean Elgar and Hashim at the other end. They are very calming characters and it rubs off on me.”
As Elgar battled along at the other end, Markram’s response to the nerves was to go after everything. Just about everything came off, whether it was off the back or front foot. When he had passed fifty in 81 balls and India pondered the tactic of Pandya bowling short from around the wicket, Markram went after every delivery, seemingly determined not to leave one in case it be perceived as weakness. There was some luck, with a few tennis shots through the off-side and a top-edge over the wicketkeeper, but ultimately fortune favoured the brave.
As the camera panned to his parents and then to his girlfriend, who marked the batsman’s maiden century in Bloemfontein with a flood of tears, a hundred seemed inevitable. Then it was over in a confusing flash, with Markram looking unsure as to whether he had edged Ashwin through to the keeper. “It was a bit of a nothing shot. I am not over it just yet,” he said. “It’s now the second time (getting out in the 90s) in a short career, but I’m just going to keep saying it’s part of the game and try to be positive. Next time I get into those situations I’ll take lessons from what I’ve learnt today and hopefully get through.”
With no further Tests scheduled for Centurion this summer, the second innings will be one of Amla’s final opportunities to make the most of his happy hunting ground – maybe even the last. For Markram, this is just the beginning of what is likely to become a long and productive alliance.