GREATNESS is often prematurely or mistakenly bestowed on players, teams and their coaches, but it would take the hardest of South African hearts not to beat with the hope that this Proteas' team took a step towards greatness at the Oval in London yesterday.

Yes, all they have accomplished on tour is to win the first Test. Yes, they are up against a fine England team. But, lest we forget, at stumps on the first day England were 267/3 and looking at a total of about 550.

SA's bowling plan on Thursday had been to tempt the batsmen into playing outside the off-stump. The trouble was, for four of the seven hours of play the untemptable Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott batted together. Moreover, the Proteas bowled just enough balls that did not conform to their plan, so sating England's meagre appetite for runs.

In the past, SA teams have struggled to adapt. If plan A did not work, plan B was typically half baked.

This time, plan B was to bowl a more attacking line and to make greater use of the short ball - a standard approach in SA but not in England, where fuller lengths and patience are more prized virtues.

In the absence of any help from the pitch for the fast bowlers, a touch of swing wouldn't be a bad thing.

The gods granted that much, the bowlers slipped seamlessly into their alternative plan, the batsmen did not show the same discipline they had a day earlier, and England saw seven wickets tumble for 118 runs. Then followed three of the most momentous innings any South Africans have played in any match anywhere.

Graeme Smith put aside the minor distraction of playing his 100th Test and the major distraction of the imminent birth of his first child to score a century that brimmed with his beautiful brutalism.

Jacques Kallis carried his old friend Mark Boucher in his heart all the way, and beyond, his own century - and gestured poignantly towards his eye to prove it when he reached the milestone.

With them for much of the way was the unshakeable Hashim Amla, a player who is everything a batsman should be and something much more than that: a man worth his salt; someone it is impossible not to admire and respect.

Amla's triple century, the first by a South African in Test cricket, was the kind of innings that changes everything. However did he do it?

"I've always been the kind of person to never set goals," Amla said. "That means you can keep going without being limited by having set something up."

All those runs, and wisdom too.

"If it was a timeless Test, Amla would probably bat until next year," Michael Vaughan said on Test Match Special, and he was only half joking. As it happened, SA did not need that long to beat England.

They could have done with a specialist wicketkeeper yesterday - a dropped catch and 11 byes in England's second innings does not bode well for AB de Villiers as a Test stumper, particularly not when SA have the real thing; able, ready and waiting in the shape of Thami Tsolekile - but that was the only blot on a shining copybook.

They showed discipline. They showed aggression and hunger. They showed hints of greatness.