Proteas seek next black pearl
Centurion - South African cricket's celebration of Makhaya Ntini's 100th Test was tinged with concern about the shortage of obvious successors to take over as a black African standard bearer in the sport.
Gerald Majola, chief executive of Cricket South Africa, said unearthing and nurturing black African talent was a top priority, but what happens when Ntini is no longer a part of the side?
The fast bowler, at 32, is showing signs of diminishing pace and prowess and his landmark Test against England, which ended in a draw on Sunday, brought him only two wickets at a cost of 119 runs.
"Black Africans are the majority in South Africa so it is very important that they are represented in our national team," said Majola.
"There are a lot of youngsters coming through and we have put systems in place to identify and fast-track them."
Although there is always likely to be pressure, particularly from politicians, Majola said black Africans would not be rushed into the national side just to ensure representivity.
"We will never put any player in the national team unless they are ready," he said.
Ntini made his Test debut in 1997/98 and has been a regular member of the side since 2000, but he remains the only black African to hold down a regular place.
Fellow fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam played in three Tests in 2000/01 and looked the genuine article, a bowler of genuine pace with an action remarkably similar to that of the great Allan Donald.
But his career was cut short by a succession of injuries.
Although Ngam is no longer playing, he was recently appointed as head of a cricket academy based at Fort Hare University in the rural Eastern Cape, an area which has a strong cricket tradition.
Thami Tsolekile, a wicketkeeper, played in three Tests in 2004/05 but subsequently lost form, although this season he has performed well for the Gauteng Lions franchise.
Monde Zondeki, another fast bowler, played in six Tests spread over more than five years, the most recent last season. He too has suffered injury setbacks and on his current form for the Cape Cobras franchise is not a contender for another cap.
Four other black Africans - fast bowler Victor Mpitsang, off-spinner Thandi Tshabalala, batsman Lungile "Loots" Bosman and left-arm fast bowler Lonwabo Tsotsobe - have played in one-day internationals.
The most obvious successor to Ntini is the tall Tsotsobe, 25.
He toured Australia with the South African team last summer and took four for 50 on his one-day international debut in the final match in Perth.
He was a member of the squad for the home Tests against Australia but had to have knee surgery which put him out of action for the rest of the season.
In contrast to the situation early in Ntini's career when he was almost alone as a black African at top provincial level, 13 Africans have played in franchise cricket during the current season
Anton Ferreira, a former South African one-day player during the rebel tour era when South Africa were excluded from official international cricket because of apartheid, is excited about the amount of indigenous talent coming through.
Ferreira, in charge of the national cricket academy and a selector at Under-19 level, says old stereotypes no longer apply.
"A few years ago most of the talented black players were fast bowlers but now we are seeing batsmen, slow bowlers and wicketkeepers as well."
One player Ferreira believes could be playing international cricket within the next few years is Mangaliso Mosehle, a wicketkeeper and talented batsman who starred for the South African under-19 team against their English counterparts last season.
Some of the best African talent has been nurtured through bursaries at traditional cricket-playing schools.
Omphile Ramela, 21, was born in Soweto but educated at the private St John's College in Johannesburg and is currently studying at Stellenbosch University.
He captains the university team and also leads the Boland amateur side. He made his debut for the Cape Cobras against the Lions last month and made 87.
Majola said he expected even more talented Africans to emerge through the schools system, the Fort Hare academy, the national academy headed by Ferreira and a high performance programme and emerging players squad under the guidance of former South African fast bowler Corrie van Zyl.
"There is no such thing as the next Ntini. He is special," said Majola.
"But every young player coming through can learn from Makhaya. It doesn't come easy but he has shown that you can succeed if you are prepared to work hard.
"In the next few years I am confident there will be several black Africans in the national side."