Makhaya Ntini retires November 2, 2010

The pioneer South African cricket needed

Makhaya Ntini had the strength to bear the burden of being a beacon of hope for millions

Sunshine streamed into the nets at Buffalo Park, East London, on a muggy morning 18 years ago. The damp lushness of freshly cut grass lolled in the senses. Not a kilometre away, the Indian Ocean shimmied and shimmered and crashed onto golden sand.

None of which registered in the mind racing behind the furrowed brow of a young fella who was neither the fastest nor the most talented bowler on view. But this was no ordinary brow. It belonged to Makhaya Ntini, and as such it was an outcrop of a character fuelled by determination and passion and will and the refusal to fail.

His shoulders still had some broadening to do, and his chest was but a blip of the mighty bulkhead it would become. But the eyes were already aflame and the energy was rampant even then. At 15, the child was well on course to become the man who would keep the South African team's heart beating in 101 Test matches and 173 one-day internationals.

Ntini bothered most of the batsmen who faced him that day. The smouldering aggression unsettled some. Others were undone by his pace and bounce. All seemed to wonder when he would tire of running in and putting everything into every delivery. He didn't. I had seen the future, and it worked. Bloody hard.

Some 30 kilometres away, the impoverished village of Mdingi sweated under the same sun. A pitch perched askew on a hill gave it away as a place of cricket. Here, everyone already knew Ntini's name. They also knew he was a beacon of hope for those who had previously hidden their dreams beneath layers of insecurity and oppression. Like any of us, Ntini represents no-one but himself. Good thing, then, that he has been given the strength to welcome that burden.

A further 10 kilometres up the motorway from Mdingi, King William's Town sprawls in the slow lane of life. It has invested its soul in Dale College, a school founded in 1861 for privileged whites and which counted Ntini among its first black pupils. In the South Africa of his youth, if he had done little else except emerge from Mdingi and be accepted at Dale, Ntini would have lived a significant life. He would probably not have done so without having cricket open the door for him. But what is too often overlooked is how many doors would have been slammed shut in South African cricket's face were it not for Ntini.

His selection for South Africa's tour to Australia in 1997-98 was met with a moment of embarrassed silence, which gave way to forced smiles. Few in the game's establishment thought he deserved his place.

On January 16, 1998, in the 19th over of New Zealand's innings in a one-day international in Perth, Stephen Fleming offered an unsure bat to a barbed away-swinger. Mark Boucher took the catch, and the Mdingi Express was under way.

A year later, almost to the day, the news broke that Ntini was to be charged with rape. The same people who doubted his suitability for international cricket had no doubt that he was guilty. His acquittal, on appeal, shut them up.

But the silence didn't last long. Ntini makes more noise than most of his team-mates combined. Once, he took to volubly tormenting a chronically hungover Boucher in Johannesburg airport. Anger flashed. Fists were cocked and punches were only just held back.

In fact, Ntini has spent much of the last 12 years being heard long before he is seen. His handshake - invariably accompanied by a boomed greeting, a smile as big as the sunrise, and a bearish hug - is not for the faint of grip.

The joyous clamour is often mistaken for, at best, an uncomplicated approach to the world. At worst, it is seen as evidence of stupidity. In reality, it is Ntini's buffer against a world that has made little effort to understand him as well as he understands it

This joyous clamour is often mistaken for, at best, an uncomplicated approach to the world. At worst, it is seen as evidence of stupidity. In reality, it is Ntini's buffer against a world that has made little effort to understand him as well as he understands it.

The few journalists who have approached him for comment over the years have invariably come away rewarded. His insights are pithy and relevant, and delivered with a bracing freshness.

On South Africa's tour to the West Indies in 2005, I was tasked with ghostwriting Ntini's column in his hometown newspaper, the Daily Dispatch. Without fail, he came to our meetings armed with viable ideas that he knew would not have been published elsewhere. Ntini gets the media. It's a pity most in the media don't get him.

But in the same way that India is blessed that the gods should have chosen so grounded and unshakeable a man as Sachin Tendulkar to elevate to the status of a deity, so South Africa should be relieved that it has fallen to Ntini to be the pioneer he has had to be. A lesser being might have lost his way, and with it himself.

Nevertheless, Ntini will leave a South African team that should have, by now, better reflected the demographics of the nation it expects to support it. Where is the next black South African cricket hero? Foreigners like to tell us not to worry about such irrelevancies; to pick our teams like everyone else and get on with it.

What they don't understand is that South African cricket itself will become irrelevant without significant black support. And supporters demand players they can directly identify with.

In this country's fractured society, race defines who is electable as president and who empties the garbage cans, and the lot of everyone between those poles.

As long as the sun shines on places like Buffalo Park, Mdingi and King William's Town, it will be thus. That should be as obvious as the sweat on the brow of a young man of endless determination.

Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa