An agreeable century on Test debut for Stiaan van Zyl and an elementary double hundred for Hashim Amla extended South Africa’s punishment of a dire, injury-hit West Indies attack on the second day at Centurion. When the destruction was called off half an hour before tea, ahead of rain which washed out the rest of the day, South Africa had sated themselves at 552 for 5.
West Indies have rarely looked more bereft. They are at least fulfilling their tour of South Africa, but if they are there in body, they are hardly there in spirit. A weak attack, further broken by an injury to Kemar Roach, looks as if it is already awaiting the end: hopefully the end of the Test, not the end of the series. The left-arm spinner Sulieman Benn bore the burden and resembled a man at the end of a hard shift long before he delivered the last of his 46 overs.
Amla’s third double hundred – to add to his 311 not out against England at The Oval in 2012, and an unbeaten 253 against in Nagpur two years earlier – was a peaceable affair, so untroubled that it felt more like an simple arithmetical exercise than a notable Test innings. It was South Africa’s highest Test score against West Indies, outdoing Herschelle Gibbs’ 192 on the same ground a decade earlier, and also the highest score by a South African captain on home soil.
He fell on 208 after nearly eight hours at the crease, dragging Benn to long on where Jerome Taylor held the catch a pace in front of the rope. Amla never quite reached the pitch, perhaps deceived by Benn delivering from behind the crease, perhaps momentarily allowing himself an inexact moment with the Test so clearly in South Africa’s grip.
Van Zyl could not have hoped for more benefaction than he gained from West Indies’ attack. He needed only 130 balls for his unbeaten 101 but, in truth, even though he is entitled to cherish a Test hundred on debut, fiercer examinations will await him.
Tension should have been palpable as he moved through the 90s, floodlights breaking through increasingly menacing dark clouds, but to suggest as much was merely to recognise Test cricket lore. His back-foot drive to the extra cover boundary off Benn to reach 99 was one of his finest strokes. The shot that brought up his 100 – a muscular-armed cut through the off side off Benn – again characterised his strongest scoring region. A limp West Indies had come to recognise his statuesque off side clubs.
It would be understandable if South Africa approached the second day with an air of supreme confidence: 340 runs already banked for the loss of three wickets and hundreds for AB de Villiers and Amla long since achieved. On a beautiful, sun-cream morning, they could anticipate some contented batting. The advent of the second new ball did not alter that.
There was a moment of optimism for West Indies when they dismissed de Villiers, but it quickly departed. South Africa steadily built a 109-run morning. Almost carelessly, it seemed, they lost de Villiers in the ninth over of the session. The delivery from Benn was lavishly flighted and scientists might have concluded that it turned and bounced just a tad, but there was nothing malevolent in the delivery. De Villiers, seeking to carve it through the off side, could only pick out Jermaine Blackwood at backward point.
The fourth-wicket stand, extended by another 25, was worth 308 in 84 overs. West Indies had picked up a wicket but there was no sense that it might change the nature of the day. Four frontline bowlers and Roach, arguably the best of them, already off the field injured with the recurrence of an ankle injury. Taylor bowled within himself, anticipating a long day. Even allowing for West Indies’ decline, they had rarely seemed as impotent as this.
Even on such an unflustered morning there had to be nerves. How could there not be with a debutant arriving at the crease? A debutant, too, who had been next in since the 16th over of the first morning. Van Zyl, a left-hander from Cape Cobras, was used to waiting – his Test debut had come relatively late at 27 – and his early reconnaissance was wary.
Van Zyl’s Test debut should have come to grief on 2, edgily made from 25 balls, when he turned Benn to the more backward of two short legs but Kraigg Braithwaite could not hold on to a chance which left the bat at pace. The let-off unshackled his mind. The opportunity for van Zyl to prosper could not have been more obvious if it had been adorned with bells and whistles.
Alongside him, there was continuity. Amla was marking his first home Test as captain in unerring fashion. He had 141 at start of play; another 37 by lunch, a low-key contribution to the morning. Discussions were heard about how long South Africa would bat before the declaration. This was pop gun Test cricket.
Amla was dropped off Taylor on 180 by Blackwood, leaping at midwicket and, on 205, Sheldon Cottreell jagged one back over the top of his off stump, a sight that stirred the interest of South Africa’s attack. His poise was also briefly threatened by a malfunctioning sightscreen. There were many neat moments, too, and when that double hundred came, his wristy flick off Cottrell through square leg could hardly have been seemed more matter of fact.