Path-breaking career

Makhaya Ntini, who bowed out recently after 13 years of international cricket, is a glimmering beacon to a community ravaged by apartheid. For him, the distinction of becoming the first black man to represent South Africa was a rare chance to rise above the mundane and bludgeon the manacles of the past. It was more a need than a want to explore the hitherto uncharted terra firma of equal opportunity, writes Arun Venugopal.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. — Nelson Mandela.

The sound of stomping hooves leads to hushed whispers about a mythical warrior on a galloping stallion. While some are quick to anoint him as their Messianic redeemer, others savour the emergence of a protagonist rebelling with leonine courage against injustice. Eventually the sound reaches a crescendo and the man appears. The sun grimaces, sweat oozes out but he must flog himself to the destination. With a majestic leap and a graceful thud, he galvanises his energy for one final stride to the crease. Welcome to the world of Makhaya Ntini where perspective and sub-texts have a more fascinating intrigue than the central plot. It's a place where bowling nuances extend beyond the sequence of well orchestrated muscles belting out booming cannon balls.

Ntini, who bowed out recently after 13 years of international cricket, is a glimmering beacon to a community ravaged by apartheid. For lesser mortals, the distinction of becoming the first black man to represent South Africa would be good enough to grace their graves as epitaphs. But Ntini was never known to be bedfellows with mediocrity. For him, it was a rare chance to rise above the mundane and bludgeon the manacles of the past. It was more a need than a want to explore the hitherto uncharted terra firma of equal opportunity.

Tending cattle in his native village of Mdingi in the Eastern Cape Province, young Ntini sure wasn't oblivious to the deep abyss that existed between the white elites and men of his ilk. After all, running in to bowl with frayed shoes adorned by wires wasn't the easiest thing to do as a 13-year-old. Even as he tried not to trip on his flaps, there were the more privileged lads equipped with complete paraphernalia.

Cricket, for people like Ntini, was an escape from the dour realities of life. With the game being a preserve of the whites, the doors to competitive cricket were firmly shut even at the regional level. Thankfully however, Ntini was spotted as a precocious talent and sent to the renowned Dale College in King William's Town. A limited knowledge of English made him a nervous starter. But true to his resolute nature, Ntini refused to be a pushover.

The real turnaround for Ntini by his own admission came when Greg Hayes, the development manager for Eastern Cape, got him a pair of sturdy cricket boots. A jubilant Ntini felt, for the first time, that parity was restored. With the new found spunk, he hit the ground running — quite literally! His inclusion in the team for the tour of Australia in 1997-98 only re-affirmed that Ntini's transition from a raw quickie with unending energy to the ‘Mdingi Express' was complete. However, it was a selection which did ruffle a few feathers. Ntini, on his part, was surprised too. “Is this a joke? I don't believe you,” was his reaction on being informed of his selection.

A one-day match against New Zealand in Perth was the paceman's maiden date with international cricket at the age of 20. As Stephen Fleming poked at the white sphere sharply darting away, Ntini's name had appeared in the wickets chart for the first time. Incidentally, it was also Mark Boucher's first dismissal. Ntini finished with two wickets for 31 runs.

A couple of months later, the Eastern Caper made his Test debut against Sri Lanka in Cape Town. It was not a fruitful first outing in white flannels as he managed a paltry match tally of two wickets. But the promise of an enduring career was evident until Ntini was charged and later convicted of rape. Crucifixion was sought and a bottomless ocean of ignominy awaited Mdingi's favourite son. Ntini claimed innocence and his board backed him. An acquittal on appeal salvaged his honour. Twenty months hence, Ntini harnessed anger into a three-wicket spell leaving the Indians gasping for survival.

In November 2000, he decimated a nonplussed Kiwi line-up on a docile Bloemfontein track. A second innings haul of six wickets earned him his first Man of the Match award. Ntini topped up a remarkable comeback by finding a place in South Africa's Cricketers of the Year list of 2001 . It was during 2002-06, however, when he shimmered with regal finesse leaving his imprint on the game. He grabbed 243 wickets in Test matches while the shorter version yielded 184 scalps in this phase. In 2003, he became the first South African to take 10 wickets at Lords. But Ntini's finest showing came at Port of Spain in 2005 when he tamed the Windies with a return of 13 for 132.

Quite strangely for a speed merchant, Ntini doesn't possess the express pace of a Brett Lee or the swinging wizardry of Akram. Neither does he own a supremely well crafted radar, a la McGrath. What Ntini does have is an unrelenting zeal which is ably layered by a monstrous appetite for bowling long spells. He revelled in conditions at home but often failed to script similar stories overseas, something that will always be held against him.

On the field or away from it, Ntini has never been far from the limelight. With a grin as big as his bicep, the hulking bowler does enjoy the adulation of his countrymen. According to a research poll, he was voted as their favourite sportsman. The fact that he was chosen to go on stage with Charlize Theron and David Beckham for the Soccer World Cup draw is a testimony to his mass appeal. Ntini's lacklustre form in 2009-10 led to his ouster prompting him to hang his boots from international cricket. The climax may not be entirely fitting but that in no way takes the sheen away from a splendid career.

Ntini, who will continue playing domestic cricket, has a greater vision about the inadequacies in spotting black talent. With his ambitious Makhaya Ntini foundation, he endeavours to unearth potential from the impoverished countryside of South Africa. If his pursuit could churn out a few more Makhayas, he would have done his fellow Eastern Capers like Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu mighty proud.