The silent triumph of Hashim Amla
To describe Hashim Amla as a trailblazer would make him quite uncomfortable. He prefers to talk about what makes him the same as any other cricketer and there are many things. He plays football with the same intensity as any of his team-mates in practice, he enjoys winning as much as the rest of them and he, just like the others, is willing to do everything he can to ensure they get there.
The only measurable difference is that he has 300 runs in a Test innings while none of his countrymen can say the same. The intangible differences are many more than that but you will never hear about them from the man himself.
He will not say what it was like being singled out as the talented one in the family, more so than his older brother, Ahmed. As a consequence, Hashim was schooled at Barry Richards' alma mater and played in the more integrated South Africa, while Ahmed completed his education at Tongaat Secondary School, attended mostly by children of Indian origin. The two grew up in the gap between the South Africa of old and the so-called Rainbow nation which meant opportunity was a different concept for each.
While Ahmed had to work his way up through Kwa-Zulu Natal Cricket, Hashim was part of the national U-19 structures. He was identified early, nurtured and eventually picked at the highest level, despite his differences.
He will not say what it was like being the only Muslim in a changing room dominated by other religions. Instead, he showed it by refusing to wear the Test shirt which bore the logo of the sponsor, a beer brand. Amla was 21 years old and asked a cricket establishment that had existed for more than a century to make a concession for him. They did it.
When he failed them, with low scores in his first three Tests and was dropped, he will not say how much it hurt. He just went back to the Dolphins franchise and carried on. He will not say how much pressure there was on him when he made his Test comeback 15 months later and what relief the 149 against New Zealand brought.
He will not say whether there were feelings of cultural claustrophobia when he scored his next few innings of assertion. They came in India with 159 in Chennai and a mammoth 253 in Nagpur and Amla was claimed by people of Asian heritage in South Africa as being a champion of their cause, given the history of marginalisation and under representation of their people in national sporting codes.
Interestingly, the only person in the Amla family who saw Hashim's 250 was his niece, Ahmed's daughter Zahra, who was four at the time. The rest of his family were occupied with their day to day lives and got on with doing what they had to do, even while he was making history.
This time was no different. His wife Sumayya and six-month old son Abdullah, were in London but not at the ground. His family managed to "catch the little period before the declaration and saw him pass the record and then 300," Ahmed said. "Everyone was pretty happy for him." That was all Ahmed would say, typical of an understated family that does not surrender to self-promotion.
It was up to other people to build Hashim's brand. At Essex, he earned the nickname WG because of his resemblance. The Barmy Army were more mischievous in their assessment of him when they composed the lyrics of the song they wrote on 2009-10 tour to South Africa. They would belt it out whenever he did something notable to the tune of "He's got the whole world in his hands," or something close to it. "He's got his head on upside down," they would chant.
Hashim would only giggle, revealing the sense of humour few thought he had. It's a rare personal insight into the man who keeps himself removed from the celebrity that follows him. His team-mates will confess that he has a delightful lighter side and often talks to them on topics they cannot discuss with anyone else. Hashim is a great reader and consequently a great thinker. That he keeps those thoughts to a small inner circle does not make him aloof. It merely makes him a person in the most whole sense of the word.
That person has been voted South Africa's most popular sportsman less than two years ago, across all disciplines and the fans' cricketer of the year as well. It has seen him promoted to a leadership role in the national side and earned him a reputation as one of the best batsmen in the modern era. He defied those who said he could not play the shorter game by becoming the No.1 ranked batsmen in the fifty-over format and has scored five centuries in 2010. He is being written about as the most valuable No. 3 in Tests and some may say that at The Oval today he proved that.
Having started batting two days ago, Hashim spent 13 hours and 10 minutes at the crease and faced the equivalent of just over 88 overs. He starred in two back-to-back partnerships of over 200 runs, the first time that has been done in a Test match against England. He had two chances, once when he was dropped on 40 off Ravi Bopara and then when he almost played on early on the fourth morning but apart from those, he gave away nothing.
He crafted an artful innings with wristy strokes and a cover drive that should be compulsory viewing for every aspirant international cricketer. He matched his ability with a superlative presence of mind to achieve something no South African ever has. England's batting coach Graham Gooch summed it up when he said, "To score runs like that you need attitude, you need good technique, you need knowledge and you need spot on concentration," he said.
The record was not on his mind. "With my scoring rate, 300 is usually a very long way away," he joked. With South Africa on a mission to claim the No. 1 Test ranking, his thoughts would have likely been on how best to serve them.
Hashim's fortitude and strokeplay has earned him South Africa's cricket's highest score. His ability to remain as humble as the day he started will earn him many more well wishers and watchers. To all of them, he has promised something. "I have a firm belief that everyone who has played a part in my career have a share in whatever success I had. If we could divide the 300 runs up, they would all get a piece," he said.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent