Smith, Ntini settle the issue

Published : Aug 16, 2003 00:00 IST

THE second Test was not just about the glory of Graeme Smith's batting.


THE second Test was not just about the glory of Graeme Smith's batting. Just as much it was about the bowling of Makhaya Ntini who, using the natural strength and speed that came from a teenage life in the African bush, took 10 wickets in a Test match for the first time. If anyone thought that he was tired at the end they had only to look at the uninhibited grin, the boundless energy that still seemed to burst from every inch of flesh and the words that marked his feat.

"If my grandfather had still been alive he would probably have slaughtered a cow to mark the occasion."

That puts a lot of the toneless, repetitive cliches of the average sportsman into the shade, doesn't it! If that is not the outstanding quote of 2003 then Ntini is a white, middle-class, university educated Englishman instead of being the finest athlete on the field of play at Lord's.

I just loved watching him sprint to the wicket as if he might be pursued by an angry rhino, leap high to gather his strength and fire the ball down the pitch at 90 miles an hour. It was the sort of bowling that demanded success. He put everything into his bowling.

Oh, how I wish some of the England bowlers had his determination, desire to be top of the tree and single-minded concentration.

I bumped into him at Birmingham shortly after he had shown his team mates his new hair-do. His hair had been twisted and plaited and flattened until the whole of his head looked like a seared steak. He would not have the trouble that afflicted Fred Trueman who had to shake his locks out of his eyes before every ball and you could tell from the big, broad smile on his face that he thought it had been a triumph.

"Love the hair," I said to him, cheekily.

"Yeah, thank you, thank you. Let's hope it brings me a few wickets," he replied.

Not just 10 wickets, adding up to 14 in the series, but a share of the `Man of the Match' award with that hero Smith.

Although he has now been playing first class cricket for nine years, ever since he made his debut in East London against the side led by Michael Atherton, he is still as enthusiastic as ever. I watched that day as he began his first over with Ray Illingworth, the tour manager and Peter Lever, the England bowling coach.

"Is this the new kid?" asked Lever. "Aye, this must be him," said Illingworth. They watched three balls in silence. "He can bowl, all right," said Illingworth. Then: "Look, he'll bowl a maiden if he gets this next ball in the right place." Ntini pitched it short, got it to rise into the batsman's ribs. "Aye, he'll do," said Illingworth and promptly went to sign him for Farsley, his local club in Yorkshire, for the summer.

Ntini has come a long way since then. A nasty bit of trouble with the law, a tribal ceremony to test his manhood and then a spot of tutelage under the supervision of Dennis Lillee. In Australia this year Lillee gave me his verdict: "Good bowler, better now he can bowl the outswinger too," he said.

There was not much sign of the outswinger at Lord's. Just plain, old-fashioned quickish bowling, sometimes a bit short, often wayward — he went for 220 runs in 48 overs which is hardly line and length — but all wrapped up in a determined effort to give everything he had.

If you have escaped from nights of trial in the bush, on your own, with only dried meat and no water into the life of five star luxury you might well consider that you give everything to stay in the top strata. For the same reason you might watch out for Dewald Pretorius, removed from his family, beaten and abused as a child and admitting that cricket has given him the one chance to escape from a wretched life.

England used to have such cricketers. Harold Larwood and Fred Trueman clawing their way out of the coal mines; the Bedser twins walking miles to the railway station; rough men from Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire prepared to put up with snarls from amateur captains, low pay, injuries, brickbats when they failed, scant praise when they succeeded and travel through the night by train and bus and the occasional lift. West Indians pushed into second class hotels for their home matches. Sri Lankans on poor pay.

All prepared to put up with the bad times because it was better than the life they had at home. Because it had taken such strength of character to get to the top.

Where are they now? Any crop of England players falls into three groups: those like Alec Stewart and Mark Butcher who were born into cricket families; those like Andrew Flintoff, Graham Thorpe and Michael Vaughan who were picked out at 13 as potentially great cricketers and who have known no other life; and the university-educated lads like Nasser Hussain and Mike Atherton, who would have had a well-paid job if their cricket had not given them a large wage.

I am not suggesting these are effete players unable to put up a fight but when they have finished with Test match play they have a long county contract to fall back on and a life as structured as a bank manager's. Cars, mobile phones and lap tops now; a benefit after 10 or 12 years; a pension when their career is done.

That's fine but sometimes they lack the desperation which fires Ntini and Pretorius. England need all sorts of new men at the moment but most of all they need one or two talented lads who are willing to throw their bodies into the furnace to get the right result.

There was no sign of such devotion to the cause as England were tumbled out in 49 overs by Ntini's brutal attack and Shaun Pollock's superb craftsmanship. What a wonderful bowler he still is, even at five miles an hour slower and without exaggerated outswing or hurrying back break.

He nags and tempts and feeds the batsman the delivery that is just in reach but which requires an extravagant stroke and all the time hits the line and length that tests his resolve. Oh, if only England — the country that used to have scores of Derek Shackletons, Tom Cartwrights, Tony Nicholsons and, more recently, Martin Bicknells or Angus Frasers — had one like him, too.

English bowlers seem to have lost the art of hitting one spot six times in an over; they hit six different spots more often.

Anyway, from 173 all out, there was no way back by tea on the first day and Smith showed he knew how to punish their frailty. Around his 10-hour innings Herschelle Gibbs, Gary Kirsten, Boeta Dippenaar and Mark Boucher ran up 682 for six and left England's batsmen two and a third days to bat.

Of course they failed although neat, compact, professional innings by Hussain and Butcher and an explosion from Flintoff brought a highly respectable score of 417 and defeat by an innings and 92 runs.

Flintoff's innings and his shattered bat were not taken by the capacity crowd, or by the critics as a symbol of England's failure but as a romp in the sun.

They saw the sixes and thought that one day those same strokes might win back the Ashes. I remember Chris Lewis play a similar innings in India in 1993, which resulted in — exactly nothing.

Wise men thought Flintoff should bat in the middle order as a replacement of sorts for Stewart who, distressingly, looks less and less like an accomplished Test batsman-wicket keeper and more and more as if he is 40 years old.

One brave soul even wants Flintoff to play the role of Adam Gilchrist and open the innings.

All these are the solutions of a support group advocating anything that will get their team out of a hole. Ten days earlier some had been thinking that England might defeat South Africa 5-0; now the search is on for someone to stop the rot, score a few runs and ensure that Vaughan is not jettisoned from the captaincy as abruptly as he leapt into the job.

The solution is simple. The selectors, who have failed to give youth its chance, will have to think again. The coach Duncan Fletcher will have to devise a plan to stop Smith. Vaughan will have to be given control of his team, with Hussain left to get on with the retirement he wanted.

And someone will have to tell all the players — made impatient for success by their one-day victories — that, as the snooker players have it, "you cannot score a century with one shot."

Patience, patience and more patience. Perhaps Vaughan, given all the reins, can instil that lesson or South Africa's rough diamonds, now in a position to dominate the rest of the series, will run away with a trophy that should belong to England.

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