Updated: March 6, 2014 5:16:35 pm
Few contemporary batsmen have so much time on the ball as Hashim Amla, and for that reason, watching the South African stare disorientedly into middle distance, his helmet sitting comically askew, after getting thumped on the head first ball by Mitchell Johnson at Centurion was extraordinary. Johnson had made Amla look gauche.
That face-off set the tone for the first Test as Johnson continued to terrorise batsmen, his career-best 12/127 flooring South Africa. The left arm pacer had picked up 49 wickets in six Tests running, all of which his side went on to win.
By contrast, Amla, who ought to have assumed increased significance post-Kallis, was looking unusually shaky. Amla’s first innings duck in the second Test, falling to Johnson again, meant that, perhaps for the first time in his career, the S word was whispered at him. He had slumped to 105 runs in seven innings, out bowled in all three of his outings against India, twice to deliveries that he had shouldered arms to. Amla, expected to make the last stand against Johnson on behalf of his ilk, was seemingly getting worked over.
Then, of course, came the unbeaten 127 in the second innings at Port Elizabeth. Johnson had Graeme Smith bowled, hit Dean Elgar on the shoulder and smacked Amla on the helmet again. The blows ought to have slowed South Africa down, but Amla pushed on. He punched Johnson off the backfoot through cover for boundaries and nudged the rising ball into the leg side to get to the other end. Scoring at a healthy rate (72.15), Amla gave his side enough time to bowl Australia out a second time, as South Africa squared the series with a 231-run win.
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Amla’s return to form also coincided with Johnson’s own return to relative normalcy (he picked up less than six wickets for the first time in seven matches) on a sluggish wicket.
It will be a different story when the decider gets underway Saturday at the Newlands, a venue which has yielded a result in every match for the last three seasons, including the bizzare game in 2011, where South Africa and Australia combined to lose 22 wickets in 44.5 overs on the second day. All of the 32 batsmen to be dismissed in the game fell to pace. In fact, over the last three seasons, pacers have picked up eight out of 10 wickets to fall at Newlands.
Between watching left-arm spinners fire it in in Bangladesh, England slug it out against the West Indies in Antigua, and Amla take on Johnson at Newlands with the series at stake, the choice for the fan is straight forward.
Raakesh is a principal correspondent, based in Delhi
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