Hashim Amla’s triple hundred against England doesn’t just stand as a hallmark of quality batting. It stands testimony to how far South Africa have come forward as a sporting nation since the end of apartheid.
Amla’s achievement has found more space in the spotlight because he is also the only Muslim to have ever played for the South African national cricket team. The way he treated himself after Dean Jones’ ‘terrorist’ comment and the manner in which the team rallied around him was heartening for a nation which found itself largely excluded from teh international sporting world sport till 1992.
And while the players of European origin may have lost their domination over football, the real difference in time and culture can be seen in South Africa’s second sport— cricket.
The turning point was certainly Omar Henry’s inclusion in the 1991 team which came to India to play their first sanctioned match since 1970. Before that, times were so bad that players needed to go through the ‘pencil test’ to determine whether they can play for their own nation or not.
As Peter Oborne wrote in his book Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story, a pencil was placed in the player’s hair. If it did not fall out, you were deemed black and not allowed to play.
Therefore, as conventional as it seems, whenever a non-white South African player achieves something, a big deal will be made out of it. From Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok Rugby jersey in a 1995 match to the selection of Makhaya Ntini in the cricket team, sport has helped South Africa break from the clutches of apartheid more than anything.
Rather than being forced to embrace another country like Basil D’Oliveira and Kepler Wessels, South Africa’s cricket team has seen the rise of stars like Ntini, Amla, Herschelle Gibbs, JP Duminy and Ashwell Prince.
The quota system for selecting the team played a huge role in this metamorphosis from highly discriminating society to an all-embracing one. It was introduced in 1998, where four players of colour had to be included in a squad. The word ‘colour’ here is used for all non-white communities in SA.
While there has been no official confirmation on whether it has been scrapped or not, grapevine says that the South African cricket authorities did away with the system in 2011.
Maybe the decision was right… maybe South Africa, at this stage, does not need the quota system anymore.
South Africa’s history with racism and sport is a long one. It gripped the nation so much that it may be hard to put in words what it meant for them.
But whenever Ntini took a wicket towards reaching his total of 656 scalps, it meant something. There may have been controversy in his selection but fact is that he was number two in the ICC Rankings at one point of time.
South Africa has come a long way. From backing athlete Castor Semenya and defending her from public humiliation during her gender verification controversy to the whole nation cheering the South African football team at the World Cup in 2010, sport takes people away from their dark past.
It is true… sport unites people like nothing else and Amla’s record triple century is likely to be seen as a milestone in the country’s sporting history.