South Africa news November 2, 2010

An emotional departure

Makhaya Ntini's announcement that he was hanging up his international boots brought tears to the eyes of those involved

"When my body can take no more, and my arms are broken, that's when I'll go."

Those were Makhaya Ntini's own words playing out on a video that was being screened at a Cricket South Africa (CSA) press conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday. It's not surprising that there was an air of disbelief in the lavish room at Summerplace Conference Centre in the swanky suburb of Hyde Park.

Everyone could see that Makhaya looked in perfect health. So why was there a mini-film recapping all the best moments of his career? Why was the biggest loudmouth in the sport looking so pensive? Why were there tears welling up in the eyes of the man we all thought was invincible?

On the stage, Gerald Majola, the CSA chief executive, sat with his head slightly bowed. He couldn't look up, almost as though doing so would hurt too much. As Ntini approached the stage, Majola couldn't hide that something hugely significant was about to happen. His pained face gave way to a trickle of tears.

Ntini was smartly dressed in a black suit and crisp, white shirt. His tie was a striped monochrome mix. Truth be told, he could easily just have stepped off a shoot for GQ magazine. "I wasn't sure what to wear today," he said smiling. "I thought I would wear my green and gold blazer before handing it back to Gerald but then I decided not to."

It was true. His body was not broken, but he was saying goodbye to international cricket. He had prepared well for this day, because he knew the people he was breaking the news to would not take it well. He was no ordinary cricketer, he was one man who represented almost 80% of the country's population. For over a decade, Ntini had been the face and voice of black South Africans in cricket. Although he had been out of the international fold for almost a year, and a comeback had always been unlikely, he was regarded as the one of the most popular sportsmen in the land.

"I know everyone will be grumpy and ask why I am deciding to leave, but it is time," said Ntini. His voice broke as he recapped his career, but he managed a grin when he spoke about his first match. "Playing for the first time for my country was one of the most tense situations I've been in. I don't know how I got through it. I was so tense and so nervous."

He painted a picture of himself in the early years that was completely different to the one the world had become used to. Ntini was known as a natural noisemaker. That, along with bowling, was his special talent and he put it on show whether or not he felt up to it. His attitude was always that he was an entertainer and whenever he was in public he had to do just that.

His eyes grew redder as his speech went on and the tears were always on the brink of spilling over. But he also didn't want to make anyone else cry, so he quickly reassured everyone. "I'm not done yet, you'll still see me on the Warriors team and I will be involved for as long as I am allowed to make sure that cricket in this country does not die. Whatever I do, I am not going to go away from CSA and I am going to try and work with them. I was meant to be a cricketer and I was meant to be a sportsman."

That was proof that Ntini saw the people involved in cricket as his family and he wanted them to prosper. He has pledged his time to nurturing young cricketers, in the same way he was once supported. Dr Mtutuzeli Nyoka, president of CSA, said he believed Ntini was a beacon of hope for many. "There are many children in SA who have the same background of you," he told Ntini. "Children who live in a universe of despair and without hope. We hope you will give them hope and tell them that there is a place for them in this game of cricket."

The president was the last to bid Ntini farewell during the official proceedings. He usually reserves Tuesdays for his medical practice, but was in attendance at the special request of Majola, who said he didn't want to handle Ntini's retirement alone."It is the greatest pleasure of my life to share in this historic moment," said Nyoka. "Makhaya is by far the best black cricketer South Africa has ever had. He did was he was not expected to do and he fought against the odds."

Majola's tears were no longer disguised. He was clearly the hardest hit by the loss of his favourite son. The usually tough CEO was not ashamed of his emotions. "Makhaya meant a lot to all of us," he explained, before going on to heap lavish praise on the fellow Eastern-Caper. "I put him in the same category as Nelson Mandela because what Nelson Mandela meant for South Africa, Makhaya meant for cricket. None of us can do what Makhaya did."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent