Saturday, December 19, 2009

England wilt as Amla turns up the heat

Hashim Amla's seventh Test hundred ensured England's last nine wickets must last the final day to avoid defeat at Centurion.

Amla (100) came in at 20 for two on the penultimate morning of the first Test and soon saw South Africa falter to a perilous 46 for four, with an existing lead of only 62 on an unpredictable pitch.

But he proved immovable for more than four hours, gradually drawing England's sting in a fifth-wicket stand of 121 with AB de Villiers (65) and then allowing Mark Boucher (63no) to up the ante while another 75 were plundered from a tiring attack.

By the time James Anderson (four for 73) bowled him with some low bounce from the second new ball, Amla had kept out 212 deliveries and collected 10 fours out of South Africa's eventual 301 for seven declared.

When England then lost captain Andrew Strauss - caught behind off a good delivery from Morne Morkel - on the way to 11 for one in six overs of batting under cloud cover, they were in a thoroughly unenviable position.

Sweltering conditions persisted almost throughout, but a thundery break-down is expected on Sunday - meaning time could well be the decisive factor in whether Amla's high-class vigil will be commuted to home victory.

It was England who made the best early progress on Saturday on a surface which hinted at some more treachery for the batsmen but subsequently went through one of its prolonged periods of viability.

Amla had all the answers to questions posed by a four-man frontline attack - whose hopes had been justifiably high after three early successes.

Nightwatchman Paul Harris, who has a habit of going across his stumps, was unlucky to be bowled round his legs by Anderson - the ball taking a freak change of direction after clipping the bottom of his thigh pad.

There was much less fortune associated with the big wicket of Graeme Smith, although the home captain did get an inside edge on to his stumps on a very good ball from Graham Onions which curved back into the left-hander to defeat his forward-defence.

Much would depend on the next two partnerships, concerning initially Amla and first-innings centurion Jacques Kallis.

As Anderson and Onions gave way in a double change to Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, Kallis managed just four in 10 overs of his 12-run stand with Amla before another England plan worked a treat.

Two men were set back on the hook for Kallis, and he did not get enough bat on a Broad short ball to beat Alastair Cook - who took a well-judged catch on the deep-square boundary.

It seemed the tense tussle would surely continue. Instead, though, England - who did nothing wrong - could find no way through Amla and De Villiers until almost teatime.

The former had two close shaves against Swann, with an attempted sweep on 18 which looped up off bat and pad just out of everyone's reach at a short mid-on - and then surviving a reviewed lbw call in the off-spinner's next over.

De Villiers released the tension a little by confidently striking Swann high over long-on for six.

But it was after lunch that the two South Africans began to truly cash in, Amla the first to his 50 but De Villiers operating at a more damaging tempo in his 70-ball half-century.

England were within an inch of the wicket they had begun to desperately need when they used up their final review and Steve Davis' not-out lbw decision stood against Onions' appeal, with De Villiers on 47.

Had the tracker placed impact with leg-stump even marginally lower, with the batsman pinned on the back foot, the tourists would have had their breakthrough.

The return of Broad, and plenty more patience, finally did for De Villiers when he drove on the up and fell to a smart diving catch at cover by Ian Bell.

By then, though, England's realistic aspirations to anything more than an honourable draw had receded significantly.

The compact and wristy Amla continued to profit from percentage batsmanship - and after JP Duminy's review of a front-foot lbw call had gone against South Africa and with Anderson, Boucher proved the perfect foil to keep England toiling.

He brought up a 50 stand with a six over long-on off the wicketless Swann to go with seven fours in his own 58-ball half-century.

When Amla finally went, it was merely a question of whether South Africa would be tempted to put England back in on Saturday night.

Strauss was very soon wishing they had not.

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