Shouldering a heavy responsibility

THE intensity in his cricket shines through. Mkhaya Ntini loves having a crack at the batsmen, winning duels, denting reputations.

S. DINAKAR

THE intensity in his cricket shines through. Mkhaya Ntini loves having a crack at the batsmen, winning duels, denting reputations. This South African scalp-hunter from Border has been through a lot in life as well, being accused of rape, before a court ruled in his favour. Ntini spoke about cricket and life, in an exclusive interview to The Sportstar in Dhaka.

Mkhaya Ntini ... faced many hurdles during his career . — Pic. N. BALAJI-

Question: With Allan Donald bidding adieu to the game, you have so much responsibility on you, heading the new generation of the South African fast bowlers.

Answer: This is the opportunity I have been waiting for. I have to take more responsibility. The side expects a lot from me.

In the initial phase, you had difficulty breaking into the South African eleven. It must have been frustrating.

It was tough waiting in the wings, trying to get into the South African eleven. I knew it would be difficult. There were good bowlers like Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Lance Klusener and Jacques Kallis. I had to wait for my time. What I had to do was to improve during the period I was waiting, so that I would be ready.

Growing up in a big family, you faced quite a few hurdles. Your parents must have been a huge source of inspiration.

It's quite a long story. It would exhaust your tape. We were six brothers and a sister. We grew up near East London. We were not a wealthy family. In fact, we were quite a poor family. My father, Enok Ntini, was the only bread winner. We looked up to him. He was quite a leader in the family. After his death, things started changing. We had to survive.

Your mother shouldered the burden during that phase, is it not?

My mother began looking for a job. We had only our mom working and it was not a proper job, she could not supply every single thing we needed, but she tried hard. We pulled through.

Your cricket, more precisely, your ability to bowl quick changed your life.

Things started changing. I had to study in a white school, I received a scholarship, and my cricket took over.

The late Malcolm Marshall was one of your heroes. We can glimpse so much of his bowling in yours.

We used to admire him from a distance. We used to watch the tapes, his bowling. His way of attacking and taking wickets. The other guy I would like to thank would be Richard Phybus. He was the coach of Pakistan in the World Cup. He trained me, tried to ensure that everything I did was more like Malcolm Marshall. Phybus changed my action, changed my way of bowling. He was one of the main guys who influenced my career. Since I changed my action to one similar to Marshall, the injury worries have reduced. So many fast bowlers suffer from back problems.

You waste so little time between deliveries. You tend to settle into a rhythm quickly, in your run-up.

Bowling is rhythm. If you don't find your rhythm it would be a waste of a day. Because you will be trying to force things.

You are evolving as a bowler. When you began, you would fire them in from wide of the stumps, angling the deliveries into the right-hander. Now, you are attempting to get closer to the stumps, and it has opened up a whole lot of possibilities.

Since I was with the South African side, there would always be complaints - If you bowl too wide of the wickets, it would be difficult for you to win leg-before shouts. My deliveries would be pitching or hitting the batsmen outside the line. I had a look at it in the tapes myself. Van Zyl, who is the coach of the South African bowlers, made sure that I got closer to the wickets. Pollock, who is such a great bowler, also gets close to the wickets, and his deliveries always pitch in the line of the wickets. I am also trying to get there. Whenever a batsman makes a mistake, I have a better chance of getting him.

Now, you are actually getting a few deliveries to deviate away from the right-hander slightly.

I am still working on the delivery that leaves the right-hander. I can definitely get it to straighten. I want to finish my career as one of the great fast bowlers in the world. I want to bowl quick.

You went through a torrid phase when accused of a rape charge. One day you were a star, and the next day, your very career was threatened. How did you cope with the situation mentally?

It depends on the family you are surrounded with. We owe a lot to them, and they were all supportive. They all prayed for me, of course. We had to accept the decision, whatever it was. I was innocent. But I knew, the court will take its own course. I believe whatever is bound to happen, will happen. My family, my wife and my child, were always there for me.

Your mother must have been deeply worried. She had worked so hard to see you grow up and now...

My mother was worried, though she did not show that to me. She made sure that I mustn't break down. Mustn't quit. She always used to tell me that whatever you have got nobody can take away from you.

Did you go to jail Mkhaya?

I never went to jail to be honest with you. I want to thank the almighty for that, I am very grateful about it. I was at home. I was doing everything like the normal people. I went to court, the days I had to. Mentally, the family made a lot of difference.

During those troubled times, did it ever cross your mind that you might not play cricket again.

I always believed that I would play. Though they told me that I could not go near a cricket ground, could not play. I was not even allowed to be close to where people played cricket. Whatever talent I have, nobody can take it away from me. That was one of the things that pushed me. The episode opened my eyes. Made me see the world. Showed me the kind of people I had to live with. Whom you should trust, and whom you should not. Whenever the negative thoughts entered my mind, I told myself I will show the world who I am.

So self-belief saw you through. The whole experience must have matured you as a person.

It did actually. As I told to you, my family made sure that everything around me was normal during that period. That I must believe in the justice of the court. During such times, a lot of people have come apart. I survived. I came back, we played Australia in the VB series. Things began to fall in place again.

The spell you believed changed your career?

The spell that changed my career was when I picked six wickets against New Zealand in free state. I began to believe that I can make it through. That I can set goals for myself. Then you see who are the guys who have set records. You look at Malcolm Marshall, you look at Courtney Walsh, and Allan Donald. As a bowler, you want to be among those greats. I am capable of achieving that.

For long, you were not considered an ideal bowler for limited overs cricket...

There was a talk then that I was not a one-day bowler. When we played in Australia when Steve Elworthy broke down and they looked at me, I did well, we started winning matches. One-day or Test match bowler, it is all the same. You only have to work on your variations in limited overs matches, especially in the sub-continent.

With Donald having drifted into the sunset, you and Shaun Pollock have to develop into the next great South African pace combination.

Pollock is still quite young and we are actually talking about it more and more. We have to ensure that South Africa maintains its record. We have to work together. If I make a mistake, Pollock would be the first one to tell me and suggest something different. If Pollock makes a mistake I would be the first to tell him. This is how a partnership works.

Pollock is not quick these days, yet he is among the wickets. Perhaps there is a lesson for every paceman there.

That is because of experience. He has been all around. He has had a few injuries. He has worked on variations. He lands the ball at the right place.

You were under Hansie Cronje, then Pollock. How would you compare the two.

I never played that much with Hansie, in a match situation. What we have to do now is to move on. Comparisons are not going to help. We change presidents every five years. We can't compare what the last president did and what the future president would do. We as players, have to support the captain.

South Africa's early departure in the World Cup must have left you deeply disappointed.

In '99 England didn't go to the Super Six. So many countries when they are the hosts, fail. We were unlucky when it came to mother nature. When we thought we could win the game, mother nature comes in and played her part. We have to accept that. Tomorrow is another day.

Bowling is a learning experience, isn't it?

I am still learning. There are so many things that I need to learn and improve. Some of them only come game by game. I always communicate with my coaches. Work hard at the nets. When I retire from the game, there should be a lot of youngsters willing to take it up. I should set an example.

This is a challenging phase for South African cricket.

We are rebuilding. The new boys are taking up as a challenge. We are getting there.

You do have an aggressive streak in you. Even on the sluggish pitch of the Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka, you were getting some of your deliveries to climb sharply.

That's what you call a fast bowler. If you go back and see guys like Dennis Lillee and Ian Bishop, they were aggressive. That is what fast bowling is all about. They made sure that the batsman was not comfortable on the ground. When I go there to bowl and he comes in, I tell myself `that's my ground.' He's coming to trespass in my yard, so what do I do. I cannot allow him to do what he pleases in my yard. No way. The short ball is a weapon that makes the batsman feel uncomfortable. Actually, it's not all about pitching short. It's about making the batsman feel the heat. If they cut and hit you all over the place, then you look like what? You show him what you got.

Does the fact that cricket is a batsman's game leave you angry?

There are some places when you find that cricket is a batsman's paradise. Even if the ball doesn't rise above knee high, the bowlers have to fight.

Batsmen who have impressed you along the way in both forms of the game.

There are people whom you can give credit in ODIs, but it is only ten overs game (per bowler). Adam Gilchrist is impressive in the ODIs. Doesn't matter the situation; he is still going to come hard at you. In Tests, Steve Waugh. You can hit him anywhere on the body, he's not going to back off. He's gonna stay there, he's gonna bat through. Sachin Tendulkar, you got to give him credit for what he has achieved.

Your impressions on Allan Donald.

He was a great South African fast bowler. He made his mark as The White Lightning. As I grew up, I listened to the radio or watched television, they all spoke about the White Lightning.

Now you have to take over the mantle of being South Africa's quickest bowler.

We have to make sure that `Lightning' doesn't go away from South African fast bowling.

Marshall's death must have been a blow to you. How do you remember him?

He was coaching for Natal, and I met him when Natal met Border. He wanted to give me his technique, he didn't succeed in that as much as he wished to because of his death. He was trying to get me to Natal so that I could be close to him. His death left me sad. He was a great bowler.