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Makhaya Ntini: From cattle-herder to record-breaking South African pace spearhead

Makhaya Ntini

Makhaya Ntini… South Africa’s first black cricketer © Getty Images

Makhaya Ntini, born on July 6, 1977, is a former South African pace bowler and the first black person from the country to play international cricket. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the career of a man who went on to become a role model for millions.

Watching Makhaya Ntini bowl is probably the closest that people growing up in the nineties and noughties got to understanding how the Malcolm Marshals, Michael Holdings and Dennis Lillees operated in the generation before them. With a front-on, open-chested bowling action delivered from wide of the crease after drifting to his left at the very last second, Ntini never ceased to attack the batsman in front of him. Ask Justin Langer. Playing his 100th Test, Langer was knocked behind his right ear by a brutal bouncer on the first ball of the innings, and almost collapsed with dizziness. Or Scott Styris, who was lethally set up by the South African with a knock on the cheek and a rap on the gloves, before the New Zealander meekly edged to the slips and ended his suffering. Ntini spared no mercy, whether you’re a 10,000-plus batsman, or one making your Test debut.

Ntini wasn’t express-fast, the likes of Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar; neither did he have the accuracy of a Glenn McGrath. He was just devilish in his aggression and put everything he had into each and every delivery. “When you’re a fast bowler, you should make sure the guy on the other side knows you’ve got a weapon in your hand and you want to destroy him,” Ntini told All Out Cricket once. “You’ve got to put them in a corner and say ‘listen, I’m talented, I’ll kill you!’”

Ntini was the first black South African to play international cricket and ended his career just 10 short of 400 Test victims. But he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to do it had it not been for the then United Cricket Board of South Africa’s development program, which transformed him from a cattle-herder to one of South Africa’s premier fast bowlers.

It was in July of 1993 that a development officer for the Boland Cricket Board in the Eastern Cape province came across a promising young black boy bowling, without any shoes but with all his heart, in a rural hamlet called Mdingi. Just 15 years of age, Ntini had wowed the officer, named Raymond Bool, with his passion and talent. Bool bought Ntini a pair of plimsoll shoes and arranged for him to travel 10 miles away to King William’s Town for a net session. Ntini went for trials at a junior cricket festival in Queenstown and then went to the prestigious Dale College, well known for its deep-rooted cricket culture. Two years later, he was on a plane to England with the South African Under-19 squad. And by the summer of 1997-98, he was the Proteas’ first black cricketer and scalped the wickets of New Zealand skipper Stephen Fleming and wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Parore in his first One-Day International (ODI).

In just his fourth Test match, Ntini took four wickets for 72 runs in the first innings at Headingley, including those of Mike Atherton and Graeme Hick. A promising career beckoned as Ntini impressed one and all with his natural aggression. However, the promising start was short-lived as he was accused and convicted of raping a 21-year-old girl at a cricket ground in late 1999. He was to be acquitted later, but not before spending almost 20 months in wilderness. A triangular series also featuring India and Pakistan marked his return to cricket in March, 2000. He took three for 36 in his first match as the Proteas thrashed India by 10 wickets and looked a much better bowler. He did not look back from there.

Makhaya Ntini

Makhaya Nitini… the pre-delivery leap © Getty Images

In 2003, during South Africa’s tour of England, Ntini became the first bowler from the Rainbow Nation to take 10 wickets at the home of cricket — Lord’s. He took five wickets in each innings and all but overshadowed a magnificent 259 by his skipper Graeme Smith. That the Wisden Almanack dedicated just two sentences to mark Ntini’s path breaking achievement was sheer injustice. He had opened the door and showed the path to so many young, black South Africans who wished to represent their country. “There was a lot of emotion,” Ntini told ESPNcricinfo. “Relief, enjoyment and a lot of pride. All I could think about was the fact that the name ‘Ntini’ would forever sit in the place they call the home of cricket. I thought of my children seeing their name on the wall one day, and then I thought of all the young black boys who would know that anything is possible. But I was just glad to put a South African name up there because I wanted every South African to share my pride.”

Five years later, playing in the Caribbean, Ntini recorded the best-ever figures by a South African bowler in a Test match — taking a match haul of 13 for 132 at the Queen’s Park Oval. His feat eclipsed the previous best of 13 for 165 set by Hugh Tayfield against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in 1952-53.

While the world raved about his performance, Ntini was nonchalant as ever in his reaction. “On the first day before I left my hotel room I said, ‘This is going to be my Test’,” Ntini was quoted as saying by the BBC. A year later, Ntini was also to bag the best ODI figures by a South African when he took six for 22 to help his team skittle world champions Australian for 93 at Cape Town. In the process, he also became only the third South African, after Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, to take 200 wickets in a one-dayer. Adam Gilchrist, captaining Australia in the absence of Ricky Ponting, described Ntini as a “treasure”. ” You really notice it when he’s not there,” he said.

Before Ntini retired in 2009, he had risen to number two in the ICC Test Rankings for Bowlers and had a hat-trick to his name in the Indian Premier League (IPL). When he retired after playing a Twenty20 International (T20I) against India in 2011, you could say a part of South Africa died. It may not be as apparent to the rest of the world, but Ntini is akin to a messiah for black South Africans. He is to South African cricket, what David Beckham is to English football — a superstar. Remember, it wasn’t Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Allan Donald, or Dale Steyn, but Ntini who shared the stage with Beckham and Charlize Theron during the draw of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Ntini ended his career with 390 Test victims in 101 matches with a best of seven for 37, including 18 five-wicket hauls and four 10-wicket match hauls. In his 173 ODIs, he took 266 wickets that included four five-wicket hauls. Quite a good tally for a cattle-herder, right?

Post retirement, Ntini wants to give back to South African cricket what it has given to him, and much more. He plans to open the Makhaya Ntini Cricket Academy for kids, and ensure that he isn’t the last black player to represent the Proteas in Tests. “I want to make sure it’s an academy where kids don’t pay a cent. When I was found I didn’t pay a cent,” he told Sowetan Live.

In photos: Cricketing career of Makhaya Ntini

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)

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