Reaching a landmark is a special thing. And watching one being achieved in front of your own eyes is an experience in itself. At The Oval on the third day of the first Test of the series, the South African captain Graeme Smith was one who scored a hundred (131) and that too playing in his 100th Test and in the process adding a record 259 for the second wicket against England with Hashim Amla.
Unbeaten at 183 on Saturday, Amla too had reached the landmark of being the first South African to make a triple century in Tests, surpassing his team-mate A.B. de Villiers’ 278 not out in the process which was the highest by a South African, scored against Pakistan in 2011 in the Abu Dhabi Test.
Smith, with his feat, joined those six batsmen before him who achieved that distinction of making a century in their 100th Test. The first being the former England captain Colin Cowdrey at Edgbaston in 1968 against Australia.
The list also includes two Pakistanis, Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq who both achieved it against India — at Lahore in 1989 and in Bangalore in 2005 — respectively. Both were in their own class.
I am lucky to have watched live four of those centuries in 100th Test matches, that of Miandad, Inzamam, Alec Stewart and now Smith’s.
And now it is Amla who has re-written the record books with a mammoth score that was not only brilliant in its accumulation but also a very disciplined one in nature.
Smith’s innings, though robust in character, was in a way ungainly compared to the brilliant effort of his partner Hashim Amla, the first player of Indian descent to play for South Africa in Tests.
Before 1991 it was unthinkable to have seen a non-white player playing for South Africa at any sports. Their policy of ‘apartheid’ did not allow them to include any other player than a white man, a policy run by their National Party which eventually resulted in the country losing its status and thus were thrown out of the ICC in 1970, before being brought back into the fold when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island prison after 27 years and apartheid had to be abolished.
That opened the door for sportsmen of South Africa to be a part of the outfit. Had it not happened, we may not have seen the likes of Makhaya Ntini, Herschelle Gibbs, Ashwell Prince, Paul Adams and now players like J.P. Duminy and Vernon Philander.
Amongst them, white or non-white, Amla holds a special place being the golden boy of batting for his country. His grandparents had come to South Africa from Surat in the Indian state of Gujrat as indentured workers to settle down in Durban in Natal in the KwaZulu land which, outside India, the area holds the biggest number of people of Indian origin.
Hooked on the game from schooldays, both Amla and his elder brother Ahmed Amla made their debut in first-class cricket for Natal.
Although his brother did not make it to the top, Hashim did.
From disappointment to despair at early stages during his career, he did settle down first as under-19 World Cup captain and then as a senior team player. His Test debut was insignificant against India at Kolkata in 2004-05 but he soon found form and poised to make four hundreds in eight innings in 2004-05 domestic season.
Amla’s second Test series against New Zealand really launched him among the emerging players on the circuit. And not much later he churned up 307 runs in three Tests against India with 159 as his best at Chennai.
Hylton Ackerman, a Western Province and South African international who was a coach alongside me in Holland in the 1970s, had spotted Amla as a talent who he thought could go miles.
Australian Test batsman Dean Jones still regrets calling him a terrorist during his commentary against Sri Lanka for Ten Sports. Being bearded and a devout Muslim, Amla did not react. The TV channel took Jones off from the commentary team for his derogatory remark but Amla did not retaliate. Jones later apologised to him for his slip of tongue.
Amla in life is as straight as his bat which, when he is on song, moves like a rapier with strokes flowing with clinical precision from it as he plays back to force the ball on both sides of the wicket or when lunging forward to drive imperiously through covers and through mid-wicket and mid-on.
He is made in the classical mode and well in line to lead his country whenever the mantle shifts. Watching him bat is an experience in itself.
In 2008 his double century at Lord’s was a sight to watch and with two Tests still to go in this series, he may turn out to be the star attraction of the visitors once again.
A standing ovation by the packed capacity crowd at The Oval and his own dignified way of acknowledging the applause with a raised bat spoke a thousand words. And the innings triumph that finally came on the fifth day for his team was a befitting present for his magnificent effort with the bat.