India in South Africa 2010-11 January 7, 2011

The player who cheered everyone up

Makhaya Ntini made a specialty of putting smiles on people's faces. During his last game, the Twenty20 against India, the emotions on show may be rather different

It's a hot, muggy day in Durban. A group of journalists is waiting at Kingsmead for a press conference to begin. The fans have been switched off because their noise interferes with the recording devices. It's an hour past the scheduled start time and half an hour past the revised time. This is the third time on this tour that South Africa have kept reporters waiting. They have already been given a piece of a Johannesburg-based journalist's mind, and tempers are rising here too. With every new drop of sweat, impatience is becoming more and more visible. It is the sort of time of which cricket commentators love to say that something has got to give.

Then, suddenly, it's like a switch has been turned on. Enter Makhaya Ntini, two days before he plays his last international match for South Africa, a Twenty20 against India.

He is loud and cheerful. "Hello everybody. What's happening? Compliments…" He sees faces he recognises, and has had three or four chats, in multiple languages, even before the first question is asked. He wants the media manger to sit next to him, but she politely keeps saying no. "Who is going to control this? Why can't I have a woman next to me?"

In one minute, a group of angry journalists has become cheerful and no one is complaining about the delay. Then again, that's what Ntini has done throughout his career: cheer people up.

"It's simple," he said. "I don't want to be remembered as a person who did A, B, C, D. All I want to be remembered as is Makhaya Ntini, who played for South Africa. A guy who always cheered the boys up and see how they can do."

He is asked again: "Someone who cheered everyone up?"

"Oh yeah." And he smiles that smile.

You realise that smile hasn't been seen in international cricket for a while. It was in December 2009 that Ntini last played for South Africa. He went wicketless for 114 runs in an innings defeat to England before being dropped for good. That was his 101st Test, and Ntini now doesn't even count the 100th as a very memorable event.

In that match he bowled the last over, taking over from Friedel de Wet, who had bowled a seven-over spell for three wickets, but couldn't get South Africa the final wicket that stood between them and a Test win. Ntini took two wickets in that game, and as a result of those two lean Tests, he had to end his career at 390 Test wickets.

"The 100th cap doesn't say much anymore," he said. " If I would have done much better, or if we had won that match, it would have been much better. One thing you always remember: each and every fast bowler wants to break records, wants to achieve goals. He wants to play 100 Tests, he wants to take 400 or above Test wickets, so those kind of things... I cannot say my 100th Test is a game that we can remember or talk about. I will put my first wicket higher."

More than that, Ntini puts the time he made his debut much higher. "For each and every cricketer, if you want to play for your country, the first highlight is getting the cap, the green-and-gold cap. That for me stands out. Whatever I might have achieved after that. My aim was to wear that green-and-gold cap."

Ntini says he would have loved to have overtaken Shaun Pollock as South Africa's highest Test wicket-taker, but he is also grateful that he is getting a chance to say goodbye, which many others don't. "You wish to end on a good note, especially at your home ground. I think what CSA has done, given me an opportunity to say goodbye to people of South Africa and the world - it is going to be a full stadium, and it will be televised all over the world. For me to be a part of that and say goodbye - because they love me, they share every moment with me - will be a great moment."

Since he hasn't been part of the international set-up, Ntini hasn't been in touch much with the team-mates he will be rejoining. "Actually it is the first time I am meeting them in a long time. They have been playing Test matches, so I am seeing them from a distance, so today probably will be one of those days that you can call reunion. I don't know how they feel. I don't know what they wish to happen."

Will he get the new ball one last time? "Nobody has said anything. Probably I'll be bowling the old ball. The 19th over."

Before he leaves, he is asked if he will cry on Sunday. "Crying? I am not a baby. Crying is understatement. It will be emotional. To anybody. Finishing and saying goodbye to something that you love. I know myself, I have loved cricket to bits and enjoyed every moment of it. Last game, given an opportunity to show that you are still capable of doing it and playing for your country. It will be one of those days that you always love."

Ntini might not be crying, but that can't be said of many of his fans who have been cheered up by him over the last 11 years.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo