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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Deon on November 5, 2010, 9:37 GMT

    There has been a lot of talk lately as to how easy life has become for modern batsmen. The pitches are flatter, the bats are better engineered, the grounds are smaller, the outfields are faster. Some even go as far to suggest that a career batting average of 50 is about the same as an average of 40 used to be. If you subscribe to this point of view then surely you need to recognise the flipside of the argument. That would mean Ntini's bowling average (28.89) and wicket tally (390) need to be adjusted to around 23 and 450 respectively - which would make him one of the greatest fast bowlers in the history of the game. This may sound outrageous, but just take a moment to compare his career numbers to the other leading wicket-taking fast bowlers of his generation: Lee, Flintoff, Vaas, Khan, Anderson, Broad, Morkel and Kallis. In fact, only Steyn has better numbers. All and all, Ntini's career demands far more recognition. Moreover, he has been a fantastic ambassador for the game.

  • Navadeep on November 3, 2010, 23:11 GMT

    A really sad day for me. He has been idol since I started playing cricket seriously. Always liked his gentle aggression. One of the greatest fast bowler of modern cricket.

  • Dummy4 on November 3, 2010, 16:11 GMT

    You are surely going to be missed Makhaya. The achievements that you have accomplished over the years are beyond comprehension!!!!!!

  • Vinod on November 3, 2010, 12:27 GMT

    Nice cricketer, fantastic attitude. someone who can easily win hearts from the fans of the rival teams. i respect this player a lot.

  • diren on November 3, 2010, 11:17 GMT

    Everyone remembers ntini for the bucket loads of wickets that he took for Sa but……what about "the greatest ODI single " that he scored. I was there march 2006 -the 438 game….Ntini comes to the wicket…..5runs needed to win …..brett lee ran in and delivered a 145km/h short ball that Ntini calmly steered to third man of the 2nd last ball off the 50th over to give mark boucher the strike …..boucher smashed the last ball for four to win the greatest ODI game in history……Ntini celebrated that single just as much as every wicket he took

  • Sameer on November 3, 2010, 9:51 GMT

    Nitini the star of South african cricket.To me he is the most diificult bowler in terms of his bouncers.He has been in a part of a great attack Donald-Pollock-Nitini.This itself should make him happy and think that he has contributed to south africa cricket as much as he could.

  • Dummy4 on November 3, 2010, 8:00 GMT

    He will always be remebered as the first South African (Black or White) to take 10 wickets in Lords. A feat many of the bowlers in the world have not achieved.

  • diren on November 3, 2010, 7:20 GMT

    He has taken SA cricket in the right day when SA is dominating world cricket we will look back and thank one man for the change he has made.....Thank you Makay

  • Shulz Van on November 3, 2010, 3:48 GMT

    Has been a part of 2 feared Fast Bowling Attacks of 2 eras.....The Donald-Pollock-Nitini attack that conquered India in2000....and The Steyn-Ntini-Morkel Attack that brought Aus down from the ladder by defeating Aussies in Aus in 2008....Both attack achieved somthing that non other achieved in the recent times....

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