England in South Africa 2009-10 January 2, 2010

'Iconic' Ntini facing the axe

Graeme Smith has admitted the decision over Makhaya Ntini's place in South Africa's line-up is a "sensitive" issue, but unlike during the build-up to the previous Test at Durban he didn't give the struggling fast bowler his unqualified support.

Two days on from the Kingsmead Test, Smith confirmed that Ntini would retain his place in the starting line-up at the expense of Friedel de Wet, but after a performance where he went wicketless through 29 overs the captain was no longer able to offer that backing. The decision over Ntini's fate was being taken on Saturday afternoon and the news is unlikely to be good for one of South Africa's most famous sportsmen.

"It's a sensitive issue in South Africa, and that's being honest," Smith said. "Makhaya is an 'icon', through the country, not only the most iconic player of colour that we have, but also one of our most iconic cricketers in terms of performance over the last decade.

"When senior players are at the point where there are a lot of questions being asked about them it's always a terrible, tough time for any leadership group to manage. We've really tried to support Makhaya and give him as much as we can behind the scenes.

"He's been working hard at his game. Let's hope there's confidence left in him for the future. It's always tough when a guy hasn't taken a wicket in a game to say you've seen improvements."

Such has been the focus on Ntini throughout this series - from the build-up to his 100th cap at Centurion to his decline in form - that Smith showed his exasperation at endlessly having to defend his strike bowler when asked again about his chances. But Ntini is more than just another cricketer in South Africa which is why the issue is so significant.

"England have played him well. They've had good tactics against him, and Makhaya probably hasn't been at his best," Smith said. "We've worked on a few things with him this week. Let's see what happens.

"Makhaya will fall into the same place as everyone else. We want to pick the best team for tomorrow. Obviously it is a sensitive issue. We want to make the right decision, so we can win a Test match over the next five days."

In the set-up of South Africa cricket the final decision on the team rests with coach Mickey Arthur once he is given a squad by the selectors, headed by Mike Procter. The triangle of Arthur, Procter and Smith has had few issues over the last year and this major selection call will test the cohesiveness of the home side.

"Mickey is meeting with the selection panel this afternoon. We'll have the team by tonight and announce it [in the] morning," Smith said. "As far as I know, the selection process is that Mickey will have the final call.

"I'll have an input. But since I've been captain, I can't remember having a vote in the selection. I'm not passing the buck ... it's always been that way."

Either decision will come with significant consequences. If Ntini somehow survives the axe it will create an inescapable feeling that more than purely cricket reasons are behind the decision, but if he is omitted, as looks likely, it will be a tough road back for a player who means so much to this country.

There is no black cricketer making a huge push for selection in the near future. Only Lonwabo Tsotsobe, the left-arm paceman who has played three ODIs, is close to the national set-up and he isn't considered a realistic Test option at the moment. The coming weeks and months will show how free of outside influences South African cricket has become.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo