South Africa v India, only Twenty20, Durban January 9, 2011

Ntini was more than a cricketer

Makhaya Ntini was special not just because he was the first black African cricketer to play for South Africa, but because he bore the responsibility with such grace that South Africans of all colour embraced him

He ran out of the tunnel, cap raised in one hand, to the loudest cheer of his life. He saluted them - the people who had turned him into one of the best-loved sporting personalities in South Africa, the people who had arrived in their thousands to see him one last time, and the people who called him their hero. Then, with a wave and a bow, he said goodbye.

Makhaya Ntini - 'the darling of South African cricket' - did not take a single wicket in his last hurrah, but no one cared. Most people were blissfully unaware of the cricket match going on and spent the entire Indian innings worshipping Ntini's every move. It was his day after all and nothing else mattered. Not Rohit Sharma's half century, not Morne van Wyk's, not even that Ntini's four overs for 46 may well have cost South Africa the match.

Few people outside South Africa understand just how big Ntini the personality, and not just the bowler, is to cricket in this country. He was more than just an ultra-fit energiser bunny who could run to his mark after every delivery without tiring, more than the picture of dedication and commitment who managed to take over 300 Test wickets without mastering the art of the slower ball, more than a cricketer, actually. He represented something far more special, partly because he was the first black African cricketer to play for South Africa and partly because he bore the responsibility that came with that with such dignity and grace that South Africans of all colour embraced him.

That's why even a crowd largely made up of South Africans of Indian descent got behind him in such unified fashion. Ntini has an amazing understanding of how to engage with people and make them all feel equal in his eyes. He doesn't put himself on a pedestal or behave with the aloofness of some celebrities. He makes people feel like a part of him and he allows himself to be a part of them. He rarely shows any emotion besides joy and it was unusual to see his fingers clenched tightly across his heart, his eyes shut, and a tiny hint of a tear as he started the formalities of his last game while singing the national anthem.

It was fitting that he was tasked with opening the bowling and less so that he got carted around the stadium like a rookie bowler in his first few matches. Cricket South Africa must have intended for Ntini to go out in style, particularly since they chose the magnificent Moses Mabhida Stadium, which was built for the 2010 football World Cup, to be the scene of his last match, but they didn't seem to have considered the short boundaries or the low bounce. Perhaps he was just overawed by the occasion, or his age finally caught up with him.

He had an average first over and a disastrous second from the other end of the ground. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli laid into him and 20 runs resulted from the over. It didn't matter. Every ball he bowled was still cheered. When he took the catch to remove Rohit, which was his best moment of the match, there was a glimpse of the Ntini of old as he high-fived his team-mates as he had done so many times before.

Ntini's last ball told the story of how much South Africa cherish him. The crowd clapped for him from his run-up to the point of delivery and then there was a collective hush. It was a millisecond of silence as they took in something they would never see again - Ntini bowling in the green and gold.

He woke them up himself. He clapped, he bounced, he waved, he saluted. Goodbye. It wasn't the real end as he still had to spend three overs in the field, in which he stood on all sides of the ground to warm applause. The show had to go on and while most had seen what they came to see, there was still a match to be played. That meant there was another innings to be played.

A tribute video played out on the big screens during the innings break. It was timed to the Black Eyed Peas remix of the song 'Time of My Life'. The first images were of Ntini taking and celebrating wickets. All the Ntinis were on display - the young one who made his debut in 1998, the fired up one who took the his best match-haul of 13 for 132 against the West Indies, the venerable one who took 10 wickets at Lord's, the older one who battled to get a wicket in this 100th Test match. There were messages of support from fans, thanking Ntini for instilling belief in them, for being their hero, for showing them skin colour doesn't matter. Mike Haysman and Jonty Rhodes congratulated Ntini on a fantastic career.

It was an anticlimax of sorts when South Africa lost the match, but it was appropriate that Ntini was there at the end. There was an air of anticipation that Ntini would play one of his characteristic nudges to third man, but he swung first and then got an inside edge to fine leg. When it was all over, every India player on the field was at Ntini's side, hugging him goodbye.

There would be one last farewell. Ntini went around the field on a golf cart, not in it, but standing and hanging onto the back if it. The crowd's appetite for him was insatiable. They lapped up every wave and waved back, every clap and clapped back and some of them cried. Ntini's energy knew no bounds. He jogged to the podium to say farewell. It was a quick, painless and tear-free goodbye.

"Hello Durban. I would like to take this opportunity to say to each and every one of you, thank you, thank you, thank you for all your support." He had a message for the South African team. "My boys, I always salute you." Then, he disappeared into a mass of confetti and fireworks. Hopefully he saw the thousands at Moses Mabhida salute back.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent