Surrey 224 or 5 (Amla 97*) trail Northamptonshire 339 (Gay 145, Keogh 123) by 115 runs
Northants are brightening their traditional maroon here and there; their caps these days are a rebellious shade of burgundy. But dare to venture into the deepest recesses of Wantage Road and the maroon is so mournful, so darkened by the decades, it is a challenge to anybody’s state of mind. Enter some of the toilets and a voice in your head cries: “Please, don’t let me die here.” Not here, not amid the ghastly shades of yesteryear. Shades which seem entirely capable of killing the Covid virus in seconds, which sounds wonderful until you realise that if they could the entire country would have to be painted this way.
Amid this forbidding, forgotten palette (to be fair to Northants, the truth is that Wantage Road is a much improved and convivial ground) Amla committed himself to the long haul. He is 39 now, his 349 international appearances long behind him, a time when there was no more classy, serene batter in world cricket and he could exhaust a bowling attack by his very presence.
Amla has not just seen everything, he has logged it away for future benefit. These days, his worth as an overseas batter has to be dutifully restated year by year and is more likely to be achieved by toil than gasps of wonderment. He might have reflected that nothing is easy any more when bad light intervened with him still three runs short of his second Championship hundred of the season. It was an innings of great deliberation, 97 not out, from 201 balls with only seven boundaries, and stabilising Surrey who were in an uncomfortable position at 80 for 4. They remain 115 runs in arrears with five wickets remaining. The match is delicately balanced. They hope that “Hash will go deep”.
Early in his innings, Amla swivelled gracefully on a pull shot and a spectator shouted “shot” in admiration, only to discover that the ball had dribbled a couple of metres from his feet. But he was still the batter that Northants most wanted to dismiss. A thick edge against Jack White fell short of first slip when he was 31, and Ben Sanderson allowed himself an optimistic lbw shout after, but generally he ticked along within his limits, working the ball square of the wicket on both off and leg side when the opportunity presented itself, a figure of utter calm. As the Championship race reaches its frenetic final weeks, that is a good quality to have.
About an hour after play, Northampton’s skies darkened to a gorgeous sunset of maroon and rose, specked with wisps of grey. Even the sunset was in Northants colours, but if Amla gazed upon it, he might have felt most able to look upon it with the most satisfaction of all.
Northants’ seamers bowled well throughout and they made more impact with the new ball. Sanderson had given Rory Burns some awkward moments before he swung one back to have him lbw. White is eminently watchable, with his pumping run and somewhat dishevelled appearance, and he had two good wickets of his own. Ryan Patel became the third player in the match to hook to long leg and Ben Geddes, spotting a chance for a big square drive, failed to execute the shot and was caught behind.
Amla, though, was immovable. In the Family Stand, Northants supporters observed him respectfully, as a nice enough background to their chatter. One maiden was played out amid conversations about whether Ian Botham was a better allrounder than Ben Stokes, a new petrol station near Old Trafford and the price of fish.
Northants made 339 from a position of 249 for 4, their innings wrapped up in only 18 overs, and that they lasted so long owed everything to Keogh and Emilio Gay, who made 268 of them. Keogh, 75 not out overnight, rarely attracts the headlines, but his third Championship hundred of the season underlined that he has developed into a most workmanlike county cricketer. He had been an undercard to Gay on the first day, with more than half his runs coming from profitable guides and nudges to third, but he broadened his game as it became necessary for him to do so.
He reached for a deep third boundary for his hundred when Kemar Roach dropped short and wide and was ninth out, skying a leg-side hit as Roach finished with a five-for.
Keogh’s contributions have been necessary in a season where Ricardo Vasconcelos and Saif Zaib, both batters of some talent, appear to be free falling down the order. Vasconcelos came in at No. 6 and his fraught stay ended when he hooked Gus Atkinson easefully to long leg. Zaib, a place lower fell leg before slog-sweeping at the first ball of the morning from legspinner Steel. When James Sales drove a half-volley from Roach to short extra, Northants had gifted three wickets in the first ten overs and their visions of 400-plus had departed.
After play, Northants’ batting coach, Ben Smith, called Keogh “a fine wine”. A Sagrantino, perhaps, rich and concentrated, one of the darkest reds imaginable. In Northampton, no other colour will do.