Makhaya Ntini

Out of Africa

From tending his grandfather's cattle to becoming a role model for a nation coming to grips with its past, Makhaya Ntini has gone the distance and then some

'There are things in life that can never be taken away, that you can appreciate when you achieve them' - Ntini © AFP
Nearly a decade on, it remains perhaps the most traumatic event of his life. Charged with raping a young student at Buffalo Park in East London, Makhaya Ntini had been hung out to dry. Though the guilty verdict was subsequently overturned on appeal, Ntini, who had made his debut a little over a year earlier, in 1998, wasn't part of the squad that went to the World Cup in England in 1999. Worse than the opportunity lost, though, was the ostracism as the appeal process played itself out.

"I believe in the law," says Ntini. "I had done nothing, and I never hid from anybody. People thought I was going to go on drugs or drink, or go to jail. I had been told to not even go close to any cricket stadium. There was a clinic organised by Border cricket, and I went in to see the kids. I was taken out and told that I was not welcome. It hurt. I sat down and told myself: 'This is the life I might be living. I hope God will prove them all wrong.'"

He bristled at any suggestion that what followed was a chance at redemption. "I was given back what I had earned," he says, leaning forward in his chair by the pool at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. "I was given back what had been taken away. You're given a second chance if you have done something. That was not the case. It was like they had stolen my car and then given the keys back. I made full use of it, because it [my career] belongs to me. I knew I had to change peoples' minds and thoughts."

In 2003 he walked into Lord's as the spearhead of South Africa's attack, and filled with memories of his first visit five years earlier. "When we went to England in 1998, people had been talking about Lord's. I remember looking around the walls and seeing the faces of the achievers. You then go past [the honours' board] and see the names, and see your favourite bowler - Malcolm Marshall - is number nine. I told myself, 'When I come back, I want to leave my name here.'

As a boy Ntini was an athlete, and the early days of pounding away on dusty roads have no doubt contributed to endurance levels that are the envy of fellow professionals

"When we got there in 2003, I told Corrie van Zyl, my [bowling] coach, 'I remember this ground. Now it's time for me to put my name there.' When I took my ninth wicket, they told me: 'Makhy, you can do it. You can join Malcolm Marshall up there on that board'. When I took that 10th wicket it was not just a dream come true. It was out of this world, something that I cannot explain even today."

Those who witnessed that triumph of the will could scarcely believe that this was a man who had first held a cricket ball only 12 years before. Growing up in Mdingi in the Eastern Cape, riding horses and milking cows while running around barefoot, cricket clinics weren't even a figment of the imagination. "How many times do I have to talk about my early life?" he says with a laugh, when you ask him to describe his formative years. "Growing up in a rural area, it's a very laidback life. You only believe what you see, you only believe what you're told. As a young boy, looking after my grandparents' needs, it was an experience on its own.

"You get taught how to ride a horse, how to milk a cow, to do your own washing. You know how to make food for yourself. To survive in that situation you need to do things on your own. In the evenings you sit down with your friends around the fire, or go to their houses."

Makhaya Ntini has never stopped try for his captain Graeme Smith © AFP
The scene may sound pastoral and idyllic, but life was quite a struggle. As a boy Ntini was an athlete, and the early days of pounding away on dusty roads have no doubt contributed to endurance levels that are the envy of fellow professionals. But for all the natural athleticism and talent, life would have followed a far different course had it not been for new initiatives set up in a country that was undergoing the painful process of shedding its apartheid past.

Border cricket had sent some coaches into the country to scout for untapped talent. Raymond Booi, who Ntini still cites as a major influence on his career, was one of them. Ntini's eyes light up as he talks of the day that changed his destiny. "I was 14," he says - a startling disclosure when you realise that he was playing for his country at 20. "I was passing by a ground and saw this group of young people running around. We were standing at a distance, watching what was going on. They called us in there to join them, gave us two balls and asked us to start bowling."

Till then cricket was an alien activity practised by those from another world. "The only time we got to watch cricket was after Christmas," he says. "On Boxing Day people from the rural areas got together and had a tournament." Even after he had been introduced to the game's possibilities, it was a while before Ntini dared to dream of playing it for a living. "In my area we only believed what was in front of us," he says with a shrug. "We were playing cricket just for the fun of it. We weren't doing it because we wanted to achieve. We never thought we could play with white people."

Even when age-group coaches decided to take a punt on him, there were other hurdles. "We didn't have money, we didn't have transport," he says. "The cars went by twice a day. If you missed transport at eight in the morning, the next one would be at three in the afternoon, and then at six in the evening. So we had to walk to the next town to get transport." Often his meagre allowance would be spent on transport into town, and that usually meant a missed meal.

He also didn't understand a word of English, having grown up speaking Xhosa, one of 11 major languages in the republic. Giving up, though, would have meant being a prisoner to his circumstances for the rest of his life. "From the beginning the people surrounding me used to say that I could make it," he says. "My family was very poor. So when people said, 'Makhaya, you can make it,' I could dream and try to succeed. Losing hope was not an option."

Ntini has carried the South African attack, taking over the leading role from Shaun Pollock © AFP
A smile plays on his lips as he recalls his first cap in 1997-98. Not part of the original tour party to Australia, he was drafted in when Roger Telemachus tweaked his hamstring. "We were practising for Border and the coach came to me and said, 'Makhy, I have some good news for you.' When I asked him what it was, he said, 'You've been selected to play for South Africa.' You're talking about a team that had Hansie Cronje, Brian McMillan and Jonty Rhodes. I said, 'You're just bullshitting.' Two minutes later Dr Ali Bacher phoned me and congratulated me on being selected. That was when I believed it. It's something that every young man dreams of."

Though proud of what he has achieved since, Ntini is uncomfortable when people talk of him as a pioneer. "I've always got a problem with that," he says in a slightly belligerent tone. "In South Africa we have so many cultures. There are coloureds too. [Herschelle] Gibbs was in front of me. Paul Adams was too. I was the third [he forgets Omar Henry, who played against India in 1992-93]. You can say that I'm the first Xhosa speaker to play for South Africa. That's something I'm proud of, especially if it's helped change some lives."

He insists that the colour of his skin, and his background - a world apart from the elite schools and colleges that groomed many of his team-mates - didn't make life awkward in the dressing room. "Hansie Cronje came to me and said, 'Listen, Makhy, you're on the learning curve. We're looking to the future.' That made it much easier for me." It also helped that others looked out for him. "Lance Klusener was one of the guys always making sure that I was all right," he says. "He could understand the language I spoke. He was always encouraging me."

If inspiration was needed, it came from sharing a dressing room with one of his early heroes. "Brian McMillan was one of the guys I looked upto," he says. "I looked at how he attacked the wicket when he came in to bowl. As a fast bowler I believe in attacking the stumps."

Ntini always wears a smile, on and off the field © AFP
His own bustling approach was very different from McMillan's. "When it comes to action and rhythm, Malcolm Marshall was the man," he says. "I was lucky to know Richard Pybus [former coach of Border and Pakistan], who had tapes of Marshall. He told me: 'We look at your shape, and the way you want to bowl, and even the way you run in to the wicket, and it's similar.'"

"It was something that we couldn't understand ourselves," he says, when you ask what made him take up the most demanding of cricket skills. "We used to play throwball, or put a can of cold drink on top of a pole and aim at that with a stone. So when it came to turning the arm over, bowling fast was something that came naturally."

In his case the speed was combined with Spartacus-like stamina. "Running on sand dunes is one of the things I love most," he says, when you ask about tales of half-marathon distances run on the beach. "I don't go home and sit around. I believe that running on the sand gives you a lot of endurance. You get pushed down into the sand, and you have to work to get to the top."

As a bowler staying at the top is often harder than getting there. How did taking over from the legendary Allan Donald affect Ntini? "Nothing has changed, I'm still the same person," he says. "It's an opportunity that everyone would love to have, to lead the attack. To be behind Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock was part of the learning curve. They'd done so well for South Africa, and we didn't want to lose that culture. For me to come in and fill Donald's shoes - I made sure I'd never let anyone down."

His status as leader of the new pack was sometimes called into question, though. After a poor performance in Guyana on the tour of the Caribbean in 2005, Ray Jennings went public with a scathing assessment. Ntini's response was to take 13 wickets in the next Test, at Port-of-Spain, a performance of such quality that it earned comparisons with West Indian greats of days gone by. "There are things in life that can never be taken away, that you can appreciate when you achieve them," he says, opening up his arms expressively. "I didn't know of the Ray quote, but someone told me that a South African had taken 13 wickets in 1958. When I got my 12th, the guys told me I should go for it."

Sport makes dreams come true. Living in the rural areas, I wouldn't have been exposed to half these things. I walk around these days and I see kids who are inspired by the way we play

Was Jennings mouthing off a canny motivational ploy? "When people try and put you down, you always want to prove a point," Ntini says, inclined to disagree. "Maybe in their way they're trying to gee you up. But it comes across that they're undermining your job, or making fun of you. I believe it's just a sport. The talent you have, no one can take away, except you if you play around with it."

He may seem a happy-go-lucky fellow, but the cold professional streak that has fetched him 274 Test and 209 ODI wickets comes across when he talks of the young men he now mentors as one of the team's seniors. "I just see their attitude first. Are they willing to listen to points you make? I welcome every single player who comes into the team, but it's up to them to take the opportunity and make use of the experience of the guys who have been there a while."

Perhaps more than anyone else he's acutely aware of the thin line that separates the achiever from the might-have-been. His voice is thick with emotion when he talks about a childhood friend who now languishes on the streets in a permanent alcoholic stupor. "You talk about Ato Boldon [Trinidadian athlete] and all these other guys who break records and win medals. That guy was so fast no one could catch him. If he had got the opportunities, he wouldn't be living where he is now. He would be in America, having all his needs taken care of.

"Sport makes dreams come true. Living in the rural areas, I wouldn't have been exposed to half these things. I walk around these days and I see kids who are inspired by the way we play. Football was the dominant sport among the black community. Now that's changing. The footballers are doing nothing now, and parents are telling kids to change their sport. For me to be part and parcel of that is an honour."

Once the recorder is switched off, he starts making funny faces for the camera, flexing his biceps and horsing around with the waiters and our photographer. He may be an agent of change and a role model to millions, but Makhaya Ntini would like to be remembered as "someone who loved the game, a guy who never had a query, never had an argument." In a dog-eat-dog world that's not such a bad legacy to leave behind.

The article appeared on the November issue of Cricinfo Magazine

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo