The fact that Hashim Amla is black adds a special poignancy to his milestone achievement at the Oval, writes Richard Calland.
As Hashim Amla approached his extraordinary milestone of 311 runs last Sunday, the Radio 2000 commentary team struggled to grasp the full depth of what he was about to achieve and its wider political significance. Not for the first time, only Craig Marais seemed to get the point, emphasising and then re-emphasising the "historic" nature of the landmark.
In well over 2000 Test matches, 300 has been passed on only 25 previous occasions. Amla is the first South African to do so.
But it is because Amla happens to be black that is of great significance. Yet, for reasons that escape me, both the electronic and print media failed to recognise the point (with eNews preferring to lead its evening bulletins with the news that Ernie Els had won the British Open).
Of all the commentators, Marais has often displayed the most sensitive appreciation of the challenge of transformation in South African cricket. Although you could easily tell he was willing Amla on and fully understood the political import of what was happening, even he could not bring himself to say out loud that it was historic not only because Amla is the first South African to reach the milestone, but because he is black and, under apartheid, he would not have been permitted to represent his country.
To get to this point, Amla has had to show enormous resolve. When he was first selected for the Proteas in his first three Tests, against India and then England in 2004, Amla struggled, scoring just 62 runs in six innings. Even though Jacques Kallis also failed in his first few matches (55 runs in his first six innings), Amla was unceremoniously dropped with a clamour of criticism ringing around his ears.
His technique was hopeless, some of the commentators said. Though he offered a mealy-mouthed voice of contrition this week, the legendary Barry Richards was one of the loudest critics at the time.
Fortunately, a new high-performance centre had been established at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, headed by one Gary Kirsten (now South African coach), who had recently retired. Lawson Naidoo and I happened to interview Kirsten at the time and I recall his words when we asked him about Amla and his supposedly fatally flawed technique: "Don't worry about his technique," Kirsten told us, "Bradman picked his bat up towards gulley. At this level, it's all about temperament and anyone who can score 250 in a Supersport Series Final has got what it takes."
How right he was. Although the selectors wavered and left Amla out of the 2005 tour to West Indies, despite promising him that he would go, Kirsten was in no doubt. Amla got another chance only in April 2006, seizing it with a calmly constructed 149 against New Zealand at Newlands.
Now, six years and 50 or so Tests down the line, Amla is headed towards the pantheon of the game's greatest players. Wearing his statistical anorak this week, Naidoo celebrated Amla's success by revealing that, after 60 Tests, Amla's batting record was better than all his compatriots in the highly esteemed South African batting line-up, including the darling of the cricketing media, Jacques Kallis.
Amla now has 4775 runs at an average of 50.26 with 15 centuries, against Kallis's record of 3971 at an average of 47.27 with nine centuries. Captain Graeme Smith's was 4695 at 46.02 with 12 hundreds and, for good measure, AB de Villiers's record was 4155 at 45.16 with 10 centuries.
Amla for captain
Given his temperament and fitness, there is every reason to think Amla will play another 60 Tests in the next six to seven years and score a great many more runs, which raises a new question: Is there any good reason he should not be the next captain?
He would be a good captain from a purely cricketing point of view: he is an intelligent, shrewd thinker about the game and a popular, much-admired individual in the team. Also, as Naidoo puts it, because of his integrity and decency, it is "hard to imagine a better ambassador for the game of cricket, both in South Africa and across the world".
If he does not succeed Smith, tough questions would rightly be asked of South Africa's cricket authorities - to add to the many, still unresolved, to do with the scandals of recent years. It would be suggested that the white cabal of players and administrators who, it is said, exercise influence in and around the change room, are still too powerful. This could imply that Amla still faces the sort of discrimination he had to overcome at the start of his international career.
Or, worse, it could be suggested that Castle Lager, whose logo Amla declines to wear on his shirt because of his religious beliefs, exercises its own undue influence over such matters. This would be a great pity: it would sully Amla's achievement and, worse, miss an opportunity to present the ultimate symbol of transformation: a black captain of the Proteas.
For a second time, Kirsten may need to make an insightful and principled intervention.
Richard Calland is the author of The Anatomy of South Africa