ABU DHABI // The only concern for South Africa coming into this Test would have been that they had not played a Test since February.
Some of their main batsmen had not played any competitive cricket in months before they landed here and though Pakistan bowled with wonderful discipline and commitment, it was difficult not to detect an element of rustiness in the top order.
Hashim Amla is rust-proof, though, as he proved again in guiding his team through a difficult first day in Abu Dhabi with a century so smooth and inevitable it could easily have gone unnoticed. Amla’s 20th Test hundred was both elegant and resolute.
He initially countered Pakistan’s morning charge, after Mohammad Irfan and Junaid Khan had adeptly exploited some unexpected early help and snuffed out three top-order wickets. As the day proceeded, he settled down for a long hand.
He stitched together pleasant, untroubled partnerships with AB de Villiers and then JP Duminy, the latter returning to Test cricket after nearly a year, and doing so with an impish fifty of his own. “Immense” was how Duminy described Amla.
“Just to see the power of concentration he has is phenomenal,” he said. “I saw a stat today that he is 30 Tests behind Gary Kirsten and only one Test hundred [behind]. That says a lot because Gazza was phenomenal himself. The key now is for him to try and push on for us. We strive to take responsibility within team when you’re in and hopefully he’ll do it for us.”
South Africa’s gains from the day should have been greater, but Duminy’s dismissal sparked the other key contribution of the day, that of Zulfiqar Babar.
The third-oldest man to debut for Pakistan, the 34-year-old Babar took three wickets in the last session to haul South Africa in, outbowling even Saeed Ajmal.
It could hardly happen to a more deserving player, a long-time domestic performer, given a chance earlier this year in the Caribbean and, with Abdur Rehman’s back reportedly playing up, a first Test call on Monday.
“He is a very good spinner, a very experienced one,” Irfan said later. “We play for the same region and he’s made a great debut and will go on to take more wickets.”
On the surface, the first day left Pakistan on top and South Africa, as Duminy said, “behind the eight-ball”.
But the key to this Test and series lies in Pakistan’s batting and how it holds up against the best pace attack in the world.