Mike Holmans February 21, 2010

Ntini: a national treasure

Ntini went out hunting for wickets and grabbed great bagfuls

The highlight of Makhaya Ntini's career - a ten-for at Lord's © Getty Images

My last post was decorated with a picture of Makhaya Ntini looking tired enough to justify my remark that he had lost his zip. Since he didn't even make the squad for the India trip, it would be a brave gambler who would bet on his playing for South Africa again unless there is a disastrous string of injuries. So this is a good time to remember what he was like when in full possession of zip, mojo and other attributes of successful Test bowlers.

He first played for South Africa in 1998, and his first few appearances were not especially promising. He was fit, energetic and bowled fast, but he bowled from far too wide on the crease, his action was inelegant and awkward, and he had little command of length or direction. It was impossible to avoid the suspicion that politics had played a part in his inclusion.

He was persisted with, and gradually he improved. The action never got tidied up and he continued to bowl from an exceptionally wide position, but more and more balls travelled in the general direction of the stumps. What one could never fault was his enthusiasm and commitment; whether his team-mates could understand his constant shouts of encouragement in his first language must be debatable, but they certainly got the drift.

The breakthrough came at Lord's in 2003. England were in some disarray following Nasser Hussain's surprise resignation at the end of the previous Test, but someone has to take the wickets of even disconcerted batsmen and Ntini took ten of them, two five-fors as England were routed by an innings. He became the second South African to take ten in a Test in England, Peter Pollock having done so in 1965 at Trent Bridge, and the second South African to get on to the Lord's honours board twice after Allan Donald. No longer was he merely the biggest fish in the small pond of black South African cricketers – he had become an all-South African match-winning hero.

For the next four years, until the emergence of Dale Steyn, Ntini dominated South Africa's attack. People easily misled by those pernicious career average figures drooled over “the great Shaun Pollock”, but if he'd ever existed, he had stopped playing years before. The Shaun Pollock of the mid-noughties purveyed little to threaten batsmen, especially patient ones. True, he had the control to deliver six identical balls which passed four inches wide and six inches above the top of off stump, but canny batsmen realised there was no need to play at them. Pollock was given his wickets when batsmen got frustrated and hit out at balls which were not there for hitting.

Ntini, on the other hand, went out hunting for wickets and grabbed great bagfuls. He had gained the precarious control of a trucker piloting a fully-laden 18-wheeler down a steep hill, and that was enough. Pitch maps showing where the ball pitched looked like random paint-splatters, but at high speed it was very difficult for batsmen to pick up the line, especially for right-handers who had to come a long, long way across to see it before it was upon them. They played at balls they should have left and vice versa, only to see the ball balloon to gully or hear the crash as their stumps fell over. It was artless bowling, but supremely effective.

Over those four years, Ntini took 203 wickets at a strike rate of 49 against non-Zimbladesh teams, Pollock 128 at 68. Ntini had 15 five-fors and four ten-wicket matches, Pollock two five-fors in 2003 and none thereafter. Pollock did a decent enough job, but Ntini was a serial destroyer. I've laboured the point rather, but I don't think Makhaya ever really got the credit he deserved as a world class-bowler in the mid-decade. Not quite a great, perhaps, but a hugely important match-winner.

Criticism that he had no variations, no slower ball, no cutters rather missed the point: he had so much natural variation that to try anything fancy was fraught with risk. On the other hand, the lack of guile in his bowling left him entirely dependent on maintaining his pace. Once the speed dropped off, batsmen began to have the time to spot balls which were easy to hit given the extra fraction of a second to play; as it drops further, his lack of precise control becomes more handicap than advantage.

And that is why I'm not keen that Middlesex should sign him. I can easily understand why he would want to come and play at the ground where he played his defining Test, but if he can only bowl to the standard he displayed at PE and Kingsmead, I fear that he would not be an automatic first XI pick, and only IPL owners can afford the luxury of shelling out for expensive overseas bench-warmers who are largely past their pick-by date. I don't think the Ntini of 2010 would significantly strengthen Middlesex's bowling, and he is anything but the answer to the pressing problems with the top-order batting.

But end-of-career footnotes are hardly the point. South Africa know all about finding rough diamonds and then cutting them and polishing them into precious jewels: Ntini started as a dull pebble and ended as a national treasure.