AS THE light faded on a gloomy afternoon in Brisbane, Hashim Amla quietly crept towards a milestone that will confirm him, if there is any existing doubt, as the world's best batsman right now. He did it as is his way - studiously and without theatrics, inching towards Michael Clarke's 782 calendar year runs as he pressed closer to a century in a third consecutive Test against Australia.
His effortless accumulation epitomised the hosts' long day in the field on the opening day of the series to determine rankings system supremacy in the Test format. If Clarke's ambitious posse of fast bowlers thought South Africa's visiting batsmen were going to fold like India's dominos of last summer they were dealt a rude reality check.
Amla, unflinching almost throughout, was the wall that an ageing Rahul Dravid was not and as stumps loomed, threatened to be an interminable thorn in Australia's side. The hosts, so said the pre-Test leaked dossier on the Proteas' pros and cons, were meant to be going about unsettling the 29-year-old first drop by peppering him with short balls, and verbal bouncers.
If they said anything, it did not get through. Amla's concentration, his tunnel vision, is such that it is difficult to imagine any comment or insult putting him in a flap. He compiles with such a meticulous, emotionless and one-eyed authority you get the impression he would be impossible to have an argument with. Silence, in this case, is golden.
The result was only frustration for Clarke's men, pressing and prodding with bowling change after change but unable to budge the immovable Proteas No.3. In this respect they were their own worst enemy - Peter Siddle dropping a caught-and-bowled opportunity with Amla on 74 - but aside from that he gave them minimal opening.
For Australia, reduced to part-timers Michael Hussey and Rob Quiney at either end late on day one, the dangerous thing is there is a sense of history being repeated in this first Test. Only a few months ago in south London, it was Amla's unbeaten 311 that put South Africa in a commanding position against England in the first Test, in what was also a stoush for the world No.1 Test rating. His partner on that occasion was Jacques Kallis, who made an unbeaten 182 of his own at the Oval, with the pair's stand of 377 only halted by a declaration. Ominously, Amla was dropped in that innings, too.
From there Graeme Smith's relentless road warriors would not be stopped and thanks primarily to Amla and Kallis, they have put the tourists, this time defending the ICC top spot, in the early ascendancy here. When play closed prematurely at the Gabba because of bad light, Amla was undefeated on 90, Kallis on 84, and South Africa, with a little help from their friends in the field and the third umpire's box, had strode to 2-255.
Both Amla and Kallis could and should be out already but the fact that they're on their second lives is only more worrying for Clarke and co. Amla, who first linked with the impressive Alviro Petersen (64), was given a couple of headaches in the day's dying stages by James Pattinson, Australia's most potent bowler, who nearly took his off stump bail with reverse swing and then had him slashing, uncharacteristically and almost fatally, outside off stump. He will resume on Saturday, though, on the cusp of another century against Australia.
The two-Test series between these two countries in South Africa last year is remembered for many things. The carnage of Cape Town, Clarke's brave century, and Patrick Cummins' match-winning debut in Johannesburg. What is often overlooked is the fact that Amla scored hundreds in both Tests. He needs six runs on Saturday to pass Clarke's 2012 tally as the most prolific Test runscorer but, as the No.2 ranked batsman in Tests and No.1 in the one-day game, few would dispute he is already the finest in the world.