Ntini, Trailblazer of a tradition called cricket

Published: Tuesday, April 25, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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Johannesburg:In another time and another South Africa, Makhaya Ntini would have been denied an international career and everything that comes with it.

Instead he is his country's most popular sporting figure, the engine of the South African bowling attack, the second-highest ranked bowler in the world and the leading wicket-taker with 29 scalps.

Ntini is among Cricket South Africa's highest-paid employees and he can expect to earn up to R1.5 million (250,000 dollars) this year.

While few other black Africans have yet followed the trail Ntini has blazed, they surely will in futureAll of which is a world away from the scenario Ntini was born into in 1977. South Africa was isolated from international cricket because of Apartheid, the institutionalised racism that made blacks second-class citizens in their own country.

Blacks were politically, economically and socially oppressed and even if South Africa had been competing internationally at that stage Ntini would not have been eligible for selection on the grounds of his race.

South Africa returned to the international fold in 1991, the first democratic elections were held in 1994, and four years later Ntini became the first black African to play for the country.

Eight years on, the former herdboy from the tiny Eastern Cape village of Mdingi is the bowler South African captain Graeme Smith tosses the ball to in a crisis.

Ntini has taken 259 wickets in 65 tests and his return of 10 for 145 in the first test against New Zealand in Centurion last week made him the first South African to claim four 10-wicket hauls in tests.

The indefatigable fast bowler also became the first South African to take 10 wickets in consecutive tests, following his haul of 10 for 178 in the third test against Australia in Johannesburg earlier this month.

Team mate Shaun Pollock remembers the doubts that surrounded Ntini early in his international career.

''When he first came on to the scene people tended to say he bowled from too wide of the crease, or that he only swung the ball into the right-hander and not away, or that he couldn't get lbw decisions, or that he didn't have a slower ball, or he didn't have variation, all that sort of stuff,'' Pollock told Reuters.

''But that in fact makes him a rarity, and very different to most other fast bowlers.

''That makes him effective, because he's not someone you come up against day in and day out.''

Pollock felt Ntini had answered his critics in emphatic style. ''He bowls from closer to the crease now, he swings it both ways, and he doesn't need a slower ball,'' Pollock said. ''People talk about him having a purple patch, but I think we are seeing him at his peak. ''He's proved them all wrong with pure persistence and energy.'' Relentless is the word most often used to describe Ntini, who seems impervious to the threat posed by even the most attacking batsmen.

''He thinks about the game, although it's probably one of his strengths that he doesn't do so excessively, and he's always asking questions,'' Pollock said.

''But I don't think he gets too upset by much, he just keeps coming back.'' Pollock has watched Ntini mature from a tear away fast bowler into a key member of the South African attack and he has enjoyed sharing the new ball with him.

''It's always good to have a partner who is full of energy, and who you can see is giving it 110 percent all the time,'' Pollock said. ''You need those kind of characters in a side.'' Ntini's fitness is the stuff of legend. He regularly eschews the team bus, preferring to run from the ground back to the team hotel after a day's play, and he spends hours on a mountain bike when at home in East London.

Ntini is the noisiest and most irrepressible member of the South African squad. As a reporter who has followed Ntini's career since he was a schoolboy put it: ''He's a nightmare to be around if you're hung over.'' The gregarious Ntini rarely drinks alcohol himself, but he has bought rounds of drinks for the travelling media on tours.

Ntini often yells encouragement from the outfield to busy reporters in the press box.

According to the results of an independently conducted survey released in December, Ntini is South Africa's most popular sports person.

He is the first cricketer to earn that honour in a country where soccer still grabs the biggest share of the sports-minded public's attention.

Cricket is catching up, however. The same survey found that black cricket fans now outnumber whites and that the game's 11.3 million spectators are second only to soccer's 14.7 million.

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