On Wednesday, 16 December 2009, Makhaya Ntini became only the fifth South African to appear in 100 cricket tests.
Ntini is rightly regarded one of the most important players in the history of South African cricket. As the first black African to represent the national team, and one of the Proteas’ most successful cricketers ever, he has earned that status.
Ntini went on to play in 101 test befor retiring from international cricket. His 390 wickets were eleventh on the list of all-time test wicket takers when he retired. His 390 wickets were second only to Shaun Pollock’s South African record of 421 wickets.
Barriers on and off the field
With his quality performances and his ever-smiling, ever-trying attitude, Makhaya Ntini quickly became a popular sportsman in South Africa, appealing to people of all races and backgrounds, thus breaking through any lingering barriers among the country’s sport lovers. Annual surveys have more than once declared him to be South Africa’s most popular sportsman.
Ntini also recorded a number of feats that will remain in the record books. Apart from being South Africa’s second-highest wicket taker in test cricket, he also owns the best ever test bowling figures by a South African. He achieved those in the second test against the West Indies in Port of Spain in April 2005, capturing 6 for 95 and 7 for 37 to finish the match with a haul of 13 for 132.
While a number of South Africans are featured on the Lords’ Honours Board for visiting bowlers taking five wickets in an innings, Ntini is the only one to have taken 10 wickets in a match against England. He is one of only 10 men in history to have achieved the feat.
The Proteas won that match, in August 2003, by an innings and 92 runs, but it required a special effort on a pitch that became very friendly towards batsmen as the match wore on. England failed in their first innings, however, being dismissed for 173 as Ntini led the South African bowling attack with 5 for 75.
South Africa responded with the innings innings total in the country’s history, 682 for 6 declared, with captain Graeme Smith making 259, Gary Kirsten 108, and Boeta Dippenaar 92.
England managed 417 all out second time around, but Ntini, with 5 for 145, was again the leading wicket taker as South Africa recorded a big victory.
Ten wickets in a match
Ntini has, in fact, captured 10 wickets in a match on four occasions, more than any other South African. Apart from the two abovementioned instances, he managed the feat in successive test matches in 2006.
At the end of March, in the third test against Australia at the Wanderers, he claimed 6 for 100 and 4 for 78. That left Ntini with 19 wickets in the series, which was 12 more than any other South African player managed.
In the first match of a three-test series against New Zealand that followed soon afterwards, Ntini was named man of the match after capturing 5 for 94 and 5 for 51, for a match haul of 10 for 146, as South Africa recorded a 128-run win. He went on to pick up Player of the Series honours.
Once regarded by the sceptics as a “quota selection” for South Africa, Ntini has evolved into a team leader for the Proteas and one of the world’s top cricketers. His hard-won status as a leading international strike bowler – as ready with a smile as with a bouncer – is far removed from his upbringing in a rural village in the Eastern Cape.
Ntini was first spotted by Border cricket development officer Raymond Booi in his home village of Mdingi. As a development officer, Booi did the rounds at the villages, introducing the young boys and men to the game of cricket, looking out for anyone with talent that might nurtured.
Ntini recalls that he was passing by one day when Booi was visiting, going to fetch cattle or horses, when he and some friends were called closer. He was given a ball and told to bowl. The results stunned Booi. Young Makhaya might have been a bit wild, but he was fast, and Booi knew he had found someone with enough raw talent to be turned into something special.
Booi arranged for Ntini to attend Dale College in King William’s Town, a school well known for its sporting prowess. When he first arrived there at age 14, the budding cricket star couldn’t speak a word of English. However, he took up the challenge of his new life and the opportunities it presented, and prospered.
Ntini represented Border Schools at the Nuffield Week (U19 inter-provincial) in 1994 and 1995, and in 1995 was also selected for the national age group team.
He made his first-class debut against the touring England team in November 1995, claiming Alec Stewart as his first first-class victim.
Being one of the first black cricketers to make a mark after South Africa became a democratic country in 1994, Ntini soon found himself in favour with the national cricket selectors.
In January 1998 he made his one-day international debut against New Zealand on the WACA Ground in Perth. He performed superbly, sending down 10 overs and conceding only 31 runs, while claiming the wickets of Black Cap captain Stephen Fleming and wicketkeeper Adam Parore.
Two months later he made his test debut against Sri Lanka in Cape Town, picking up two wickets in the match. Ntini was fortunate to make his debut at a time when South Africa had two world-class opening bowlers from whom he could learn – Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald, both of whom broke the magical barrier of 300 test wickets.
In 1998 Ntini tasted success at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur when a South African team missing some of its star players upset a heavily favoured Australian team to win the gold medal.
Things were looking good for the Border star, but life was shortly to take a big dip.
Ntini was accused of raping a woman at the Buffalo Park Cricket Ground in December 1998. He maintained his innocence, receiving the backing of the United Cricket Board (the predecessor of Cricket South Africa), but a shock awaited him in court. The judge delivered a verdict of guilty, and suddenly the 22-year-old found himself facing a possible six years in prison.
Ntini’s world was turned upside down. Not long before the tour he had been named as part of South Africa’s 15-man squad for the 1999 World Cup in England. Now he was on the verge of being incarcerated, with the dreams of his career and life ruined. The United Cricket Board continued to support Ntini, but the organisation could not offer its funds to pay for his defence.
Ali Bacher came to Ntini’s rescue. He contacted a friend of his who lived overseas and asked him whether he would consider providing money for Ntini’s legal fees. The friend agreed. On appeal, Ntini’s conviction was overturned, and he walked out of court a free man with a new lease on life.
Ntini returned to the national team a more focused, fit and enthusiastic player. He continued learning from Donald and Pollock, refining his game, and in November 2000 he finally delivered a breakthrough performance.
Facing New Zealand in the first test in Bloemfontein, all eyes were on Allan Donald as he chased his 300th test wicket. He duly claimed it, dismissing Shayne O’Connor.
However, Ntini stole the spotlight from Donald with his performance in the Black Caps’ second innings. Showing tremendous stamina, he sent down 31.4 overs on a flat wicket that offered little assistance, capturing 6 for 66 to guide South Africa to victory.
It was a timely performance, as Donald was nearing the end of his great career and would, in fact, finish it with only 30 more wickets. Pollock, for his part, remained a great bowler, but no longer bowled with the pace he showed early in his test career.
Someone needed to assume the mantle of strike bowler for South Africa, and Ntini took it upon himself to do just that.
Out of form
Ntini was sharp against Sri Lanka in the following series (December 2000 through January 2001), second only to Pollock in overs bowled and wickets taken, but when the Proteas toured the West Indies in early 2001, just when he should have been reinforcing his position as one of the team’s leading bowlers, Ntini performed way below par and lost his place in the test side for the final match of the five-game series. He captured only seven wickets in the series – although he dismissed Brian Lara three times.
Ntini needed to raise his game, but he struggled on very flat tracks against Zimbabwe in late 2001, and again when India toured South Africa immediately afterwards (October 2001).
A trip to Australia in December 2001 was hardly the recipe to bring about a change in the paceman’s fortunes, and he was used sparingly. However, when Australia visited South Africa in February 2002, straight after the Proteas’ tour Down Under, no one sent down more overs than Ntini, and he finished as joint top South African wicket taker in the test series.
In September 2002 a visit by Bangladesh, at that time the weakest of the world’s test-playing nations, gave Ntini renewed confidence as the Bangladeshis struggled to come to terms with his pace, aggression and skill. He led the South African bowlers in both the test and one-day international averages, and was the one bowler who looked as if he could consistently overpower the Bangladeshi batsmen.
From that point, Ntini’s fortunes continued to rise. He was South Africa’s leading wicket taker in a test series against Sri Lanka in late 2002, and second to Pollock in a test series against Pakistan played in December 2002 and January 2003.
The following month, in February, he was a solid, dependable performer for the Proteas in a disappointing 2003 World Cup, capturing 10 wickets at 17.6, while conceding only 3.37 runs per over, but the best was yet to come.
When South Africa toured England in mid-2003, they had to do so without two of the side’s leading players for parts of the test series, with both Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis missing. The Proteas needed Ntini to lead, and he responded well to the challenge of a tough English tour.
The highlight of his career came in the second test at the home of cricket, Lords. After a drawn first test, South Africa took the initiative on the opening day of the second test as they skittled England for just 173 on a good batting pitch. Ntini led the way with 5 for 75.
Then, after the Proteas had established a huge first innings lead of 509 runs, they faced the problem of dismissing the English team for a second time on a featherbed track.
The Border paceman again played a leader’s role, knocking over 5 for 145 to become the first black South African cricketer to capture 10 wickets in a match, and at Lords to boot. He shared the man of the match award with double-centurion Graeme Smith.
Ntini finished the series with 23 wickets, 10 more than any English bowler managed and six more than the next best South African, Shaun Pollock. He had taken up the challenge of leading South Africa’s bowling, and passed the test with flying colours.
In the latter stages of his career, Ntini became recognised as one of the world’s leading fast bowlers and was a regular fixture in the top 10 of the rankings for test bowlers.
More importantly, Makhaya Ntini he proved that, given the right talent, hard work and support, South Africans from any background can excel at the highest levels of international sport.
That, more than any of the outstanding statistics that will summarise his career when he retires, will be his greatest legacy.
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