December 14, 2009

Makhaya Ntini's magnificent journey

From a 13-year-old in tattered shoes to a champion on the brink of his 100th Test - Makhaya Ntini has become a South African icon like no other

Makhaya Ntini is more than a cricketer. He is an icon, a symbol for a nation, and he now stands on the verge of his 100th Test cap. His career is the remarkable story of a boy who grew up bowling in broken shoes and yet went on to become one of the world's finest pacemen.

Outside of South Africa you don't really get an idea of Ntini's status, but inside the Rainbow Nation he is a superstar. It wasn't Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis or Dale Steyn who were asked to go on stage with Charlize Theron and David Beckham for the football World Cup draw. It was Makhaya Ntini. In a sports-mad country, his success has given hope to a people who were trying to redefine themselves after years of apartheid.

The South Africa Ntini grew up in was far from fair and balanced. This is perhaps best illustrated by one of his many stories from his younger days, when he was spotted in the Eastern Cape village of Mdingi bowling with rapidly disintegrating shoes.

"When I left home I tied them with wires all over, and when I bowled one ball it all fell off. But you can't stop, so each time you run in the shoe flaps and you have to try not to trip," he explains. "It was one of those tough times and learning times. It gives you an idea of how to appreciate the good things you have."

When Ntini was running in as a 13-year-old, the odds were stacked against him even reaching provincial level, let alone having a glorious international career. "Cricket was just for fun," he says. "You played without any dreams of going forward because cricket was one of the white-dominated sports."

Ntini would stand next to his fellow young cricketers in the nets and look on in envy. "The one thing that was killing us most was not having any kit. Pads, bats, helmets, we never had anything. We were just given a cricket ball and bowled. You looked at the guy next to you and he has bowling boots, the other guy has brand-new Gunn and Moore pads. They knew what they were there for. We were just coming in and never thought we would break through."

Yet, Ntini did break through.

A key figure in his early days was Greg Hayes, a former allrounder with Border who became the Eastern Cape development manager, and it was after a brief shopping trip with him that Ntini felt he had a chance. Ntini had been plucked out of his small village and sent for trials in Queenstown, also in the Eastern Cape, where he basically turned up with the clothes on his back. He was still wearing the same broken shoes that flapped as he walked.

"He [Hayes] called me and said he wanted to take me somewhere. I said, 'Where?' We needed to be at the ground," Ntini says, taking up the story. "He took me to one of the sports shops in Queenstown and bought me a pair of those old Patrick cricket boots. I was flying - there was no stopping me. I was a new man.

"Each time I turned around, I said 'wow'. They had studs, everything was tight and I was ready to roll. I was killing everyone because I could let myself fly. I could look at the guy next to me and say, 'Now we are competing. I have what you have'. I never doubted myself after that."

"I have the body of an 18-year-old and it will carry me for another 10 years"

Ntini's international debut came in a one-day match against New Zealand, in Perth in 1998, when he finished with the impressive figures of 2 for 31. However, it was his Test bow, against Sri Lanka at Newlands two months later that really caught the imagination. "I couldn't sleep that night after being told I was playing," he says. "I went through the whole game in my head. I had plans for each batsmen and I in my dreams I got all 10 wickets."

In reality, bowling alongside two of his heroes, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, Ntini claimed just two wickets in the match. But the promise was there. The seed was sown.

Then, however, his future was plunged into doubt. Charged and convicted of rape, he was dropped from the national squad. The effects reverberated through the "new" South Africa until Ntini was acquitted on appeal. It would have been enough to break many people. Not this man.

Two matches after his recall in 2000 came a major breakthrough, a haul of 6 for 66 against New Zealand in Bloemfontein. From there the career graph climbed steadily upwards, and remarkably for a fast bowler, he has had very few major injuries. It is a testament to the amount of fitness work and training he does. Ntini can run in all day, and often still does.

The Ntini moment that is most vividly etched in the memory came at Lord's in 2003, when he became the first South African cricketer to take a 10-wicket match haul at the home of cricket. For the man himself, it was a case of living up to a promise he made in 1998, when as a young, raw quick, he didn't make the starting XI.

"Four years previously I spoke to Corrie van Zyl [an assistant coach] and said if I get my chance I want to leave my name on the board," he recounts. "Then when I played in 2003 he reminded me of that and told me it was my chance. After the first five-wicket haul he tapped me on the shoulder and said there are only nine players who have done a 10-for.

"When the moment arrived I couldn't even feel myself because everywhere I looked the crowd were standing and clapping. I had to kiss the ground of Lord's. It was the moment you had been waiting for."

Through all the success, like that at Lord's, his 13-wicket haul against West Indies, and being part of a South African team that, until recently, was No. 1 in the world, Ntini has remained a humble man. He never forgets his roots, the way he started and the challenges he faced. Those close to him are hugely important.

"I'm so proud of my family because of their understanding," he says. "They never moan, they never ask where am I going or when I'm coming back. They know daddy is going to work."

Whenever a hectic international schedule allows - although Ntini's is a little lighter these days as he plays less one-day cricket - he returns home to the Eastern Cape and ensures his family are well looked after, now that he is able to care for them.

"I'm not coming home empty-handed. I will bring food because I know how we grew up. If I go home, they know the boot of the car will be full of groceries and they can eat till I come back again."

His 100th cap will be a moment for the family to savour. Ntini laughs when asked if he is feeling old and shrugs off the criticism that has started to come his way over declining results. "In cricket, when you pass a certain age people start to doubt your ability and how much longer you can go. I have the body of an 18-year-old and it will carry me for another 10 years."

That is a bold ambition, but at some point he is going to have to call time and it may not be at a moment of his choosing. Sporting careers rarely have the perfect finish, although you wouldn't put it past Ntini to break the mould.

What will life hold after? He is already making plans and is in the process of raising money to set up his own academy, so he can "bring cricket back to my community". Although Ntini has broken boundaries and crossed divides, there is still much work to be done in South Africa. "I just hope more people are given an opportunity, that's all I ask," he adds.

"When I say it's the Makhaya Ntini academy, I mean it's the Makhaya Ntini academy. If you are seven or 25, you can still use it. I want people to leave the academy with the state of mind that cricket can change each and every one's life."

It certainly changed Ntini's life, and if he passes on some of the passion and pride he holds, the game in his country will be all the richer for it.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo