Makhaya Ntini and Mfuneko Ngam became the first African players to receive one of South African cricket's highest awards on Monday when they were named among five 2001 Cricketers of the Year.

Ntini and Ngam were joined by Shaun Pollock, Neil McKenzie and Nicky Boje as the personal choices of Colin Bryden, editor of the Mutual and Federal South African Cricket Annual.

The significance of the honour bestowed upon Ntini and Ngam is unmistakable. Just 10 years after South African cricket finally unified after more than a century during which it had been split along racial lines, African players have begun to make an impact on the game on the field. There is clearly no tokenism about their selections, despite the fact that Ngam has played in just three Test matches and has still to recover from shoulder and leg injuries which kept him out of South Africa's tour of the West Indies this year.

Simply put, Ngam is the most exciting fast bowling talent to emerge in South Africa since Allan Donald and the sense of anticipation ahead of his Test debut against New Zealand at the Wanderers last summer did not recognise the colour of his skin.

It was perhaps fitting that the guest speaker at the dinner on Monday at which the awards were announced was Jimmy Adams, the former West Indian captain now playing for Free State. Adams made the point that as a youngster growing up in Jamaica, he simply did not believe it was possible to play cricket with and against South Africans. In a delicious twist of irony, Adams made his Test debut against South Africa in Barbardos in 1992.

For Ntini, the award is recognition of the impressive role he played in last summer's Test matches, bowling long spells at considerable pace to take 23 wickets in six Test matches against New Zealand and Sri Lanka. His consistency provided an ideal foil behind striking power of Donald, Pollock, Ngam and Jacques Kallis and his stamina was almost exhausting to behold.

Boje is honoured for a remarkable year which started during South Africa's 2000 tour of India where he established himself as the country's first choice Test and One-Day spinner as well as an all-rounder of genuine quality. Ironically, injury opened the door for Claude Henderson to stake a claim and Boje faces competition as he seeks to make his way back.

McKenzie, meanwhile, grew in stature after a nervous start to his Test career and he has now pinned down a middle order place so firmly that that he has become an automatic choice. Well-liked, McKenzie may well be a future South African captain.

Pollock, finally, is recognised for the extraordinary manner with which he led the side after Hansie Cronje was forced to step down. He matured as a batsman last summer to confirm himself as one of the game's leading all-rounders. This was his third award and probably his most deserved.