Spearhead he really is

With Allan Donald's retirement, Shaun Pollock's switch from shock to stock, and a dearth of quality fast-bowling talent, South Africa needed a bowling leader. Makhaya Ntini has filled that void, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Most fast bowlers are playground bullies that never grew up. Or worse, grew up just enough to understand there were more exquisitely refined methods of torture than bashing a chap's head against the lavatory sink for lunch money. Mike Marqusee writes evocatively of the darkness that lurks in Shane Warne's soul — "no one could so relish humiliating his opponents without some darkness within" — and it's both an irony and a measure of Warne's intensity that a slow bowler is charged not with the piffle of skulduggery but with the weighty accusation normally reserved for fast men. There is something inherently dark, borderline masochistic, about quick bowlers. Courtney Walsh cloaked it with a raised, philosophical brow; Andy Roberts rarely spoke — his choice of expression was the sadistic smile; Ray Lindwall, a man of great charm by most accounts, had his ugly moments; others, Jeff Thomson and Sarfaraz Nawaz among them, unabashedly chose to let it all hang out.

Makhaya Ntini, however, is a rarity. Had he nursed a grudge against the world, ranted in angst, or withdrawn within a brooding countenance, he would have been forgiven. South Africa's first instance among black cricketers of affirmative action, Ntini had been looked condescendingly upon in his country. Many sniggered and whispered that only the quota system kept him in the team. From herding cows in Mdingi to bowling under lights in Perth is a sociological stretch most of us can't begin to comprehend. In making his debut against New Zealand in the 1997-98 tri-series in Australia, he did exactly that. Then, before his career could stabilise, he was convicted of rape, forcing his removal from the 1999 World Cup squad. He was acquitted after appealing against the decision, but clearly these were bitter seeds. Men who've been through less have gnarled emotionally. Yet, Ntini went about his job — the toughest physically in cricket — with a joy so simple it has to be pure.

Perhaps, it has helped that Ntini refused to accept that he is a role model. He has thus avoided the trappings of messy politics. "The moment you put that kind of thought in your head, that you're some sort of a great role model for everyone else, your start running off the tracks and making mistakes," Ntini once told a New Zealand daily. "To me the idea of being a role model is quite false. It sounds like you have to be all kinds of things to all people. You can't do that without messing up." Instead, Ntini has concentrated on becoming the best fast bowler he can be. And in eight years he has done enough already to be recognised as among the best of his time.

It has been a remarkable journey, for few that saw him burst to the crease at the WACA in January 1997 realised he would get this far. There were early signs. He forced the left-handed Stephen Fleming to edge behind thus writing the prologue of the legend of the left-handers' scourge. He raised bounce. Not bounce borne of wrist snap and deceptive flight that caught batsmen unawares like a Tsetse in the soup, but bounce that troubled because of how errantly it behaved off the track, skidding on at times, lingering in the turf other times. He was quick (early 140kmphs) though not express (late 140s to early 150s). But he seemingly did so many things wrong that the experts believed he'd be sorted out by international batsmen. One couldn't leap out wide, they said, and swing the ball away — eventually the right-hander will play the angle and work it to leg. One couldn't hold his line consistently, they said, with such perfunctory use of the non-bowling arm. Surely, he bowled either too short to find an edge or too full to miss the face.

288 Test wickets and 223 ODI wickets later, Ntini is rightly regarded as an excellent fast bowler. He has learnt, and evolved — much in the manner Sunil Gavaskar said Ntini's hero Malcolm Marshall did. His compromising angle, wide at the bowling crease into the right-hander, has been turned into a weapon by introducing shades of subtlety. He still bounds in — Ntini's run-up, while splendidly athletic, is earthy and grounded, not airy and ethereal as Holding's was — but now he meters how wide he leaps in delivery stride. Wasim Jaffer's hopeless pull at Durban from outside the off-stump was a consequence of this angle: those watching might say the Indian opener should have left it on line, but Jaffer was suckered into it because of the illusion that the delivery was straighter than it actually was. The other benefit the angle bestows is any cut towards off — another Ntini acquisition — is accentuated. Deliveries need merely straighten to defeat a batsman committed to an on-side stroke.

Ntini bowls a respectable yorker to complement a bouncer that boasts of concussing Justin Langer, modern cricket's cement head after West Indies's Roy Fredericks retired his bat.

Ntini's greatest strength, however, is his incredible stamina. With Allan Donald's retirement, Shaun Pollock's switch from shock to stock, and a dearth of quality fast-bowling talent (the cricketing world has lost much with Ngam's injury), South Africa needed a bowling leader. Ntini has filled that void. But, he has done more: where 20 overs are a fast bowler's quota for a day, Ntini has often bowled 30. It's tough to imagine what Graeme Smith would have done without him. He offers a credible strike option with the new ball, in the period before the second new ball, and, if needed, after the second new ball.

Ntini already owns many South African bowling records including the best Test figures (13 for 132). His 58 wickets in 2006 were the most by a fast bowler; his 59 in 2003 were the best that year. He has come back from injury — the toughest mental test for a fast bowler, more so for Ntini, whose supreme fitness can confer thoughts of immortality — and has raised his performance against the best side of this era, Australia. His record in the sub-continent — the toughest test of skill for a fast bowler — understandably isn't as good as his career record. At 29, however, he has time to correct it and conceivably go past Pollock to become South Africa's highest Test wicket-taker.

But, Ntini is remembered for more than his world-class numbers. He has a race mare — daughter of Troublemaker — named after him; West Indian women, according to Vaneisa Baksh, a journalist from the region, are reminded of the men they once knew, "salt of the earth, hard-working, committed and reliable"; in December 2005, he was named South Africa's most popular sportsperson, the first time the award was given to a cricketer; Dale Steyn, his younger fast-bowling colleague, calls him "an unbelievable person", and not one voice in the side dissents. He has done much for South African cricket. Not all of it can be immediately understood.