The power of the unbroken spirit

Makhaya Ntini has MATURED INTO a fine bowler. He made the most of his opportunities. Others came and went, passengers unwilling to pay the fare, but he persisted, writes PETER ROEBUCK.

After his recent match-winning performance against New Zealand at Centurion, Makhaya Ntini thanked the senior players who had helped him along the way and pointed that now he could manage on his own. He added that he had been talking to his young partner, Dale Steyn, encouraging him to seek a five-wicket haul in the visitor's second innings, a feat accomplished with the last ball of the match.

It was a proud moment for the former shepherd, and also a statement of fact. Patronised in his early years, regarded as an imposition by some and as a beacon by others, Ntini has most unexpectedly become the leading bowler in his country, and amongst the best anywhere.

Ntini's impressive and generous contribution to the game has served a reminder of the power of the unbroken spirit. A hundred times he could have faltered. A thousand whispers must have reached his ears. Repeatedly he was belted around the ground and everyone tried to look tolerant to hide their embarrassment and their frustration. Prematurely promoted, all and sundry expected him to be exposed and still he grinned and rushed to the crease and persevered. Great has been his reward, and his nation's and his people's and his team's.

Seldom has the rise of any bowler caused such widespread surprise. In every respect he just kept coming. Everyone now conveniently forgets their unexpressed reaction when the dark-skinned newcomer first appeared in the colours of his country.

No-one doubted his willingness or his pace for these were writ large in his every moment on the field. But he was raw and had little technique and no head for the game. On the field he did not so much play cricket as dash around enthusiastically. At the crease he simply hurled the ball down without apparent rhyme or reason.

Few thought Ntini could develop his skills sufficiently to become a presentable international bowler. He did so many things wrong and seemed incapable of learning. Ignoring conventional thought, he sent the ball down from wide of the crease. He fell away at delivery. He could not swing the ball away from the bat (and everyone knew that in-swing was money for old rope). His trajectory was flat so that he could not obtain the bounce that set apart the game's most dangerous leather-purveyors. Pace was his only weapon, and pace is not enough.

He was not going to make it. Hardly a voice was raised to suggest otherwise. Everyone knew why he had been chosen to play for South Africa. He was black. Politics and progress dictated that South Africa could no longer field a bunch of lily-whites. Ntini was in the right place at the right time. Never mind that he was erratic, shopped for wickets at Harrods and not Marks and Spencer. He was necessary. He was regarded not so much as a bowler but as an inspiration. Not even his staunchest supporters expected him to perform as he has performed, taking 10 wickets at Lord's, taking 10 wickets in a Test match on three further occasions, more often than anyone else in the admittedly fractured history of South African cricket. Its not so much that Ntini has passed expectations. He has lapped them.

Seldom have so many experts been left with so much egg on their faces. Some of us could cook an omelette from the remains. Not until these last few months has the feeling that Ntini must be collared begun to fade. It was the same with Kip Keino. In his first Commonwealth Games, the great Kenyan runner set off at a fierce pace, leaving his rivals 20 yards behind. "Poor chap," we murmured as we waited for the seasoned campaigners to catch up. Not until the last 100 yards did the truth dawn. Keino knew what he was about. Fie on sophistication. To hell with accepted practice. Let me run my way. Let me bowl, as I want to bowl.

In hindsight Ntini was no more expensive in his early years than Brett Lee, or Steyn. Those blessed with the precious gift of pace tend in their formative years to celebrate the gift by sending the ball down with all possible haste and without much regard to consequence. Line and length is for insurance salesmen and medium-pacers. Eventually the best amongst them learn to harness speed. They learn to put over, spells and days together. They learn to bowl.

Arguably Ntini's colour brought him the time he needed to add craftsmanship to his talent. His stamina, attitude and underestimated knack of picking up a few wickets along the way added to his attractions. Immeasurably to his credit, Ntini made the most of his opportunities. Others came and went, passengers unwilling to pay the fare. Ntini persisted. Evidently those lonely boyhood days tending his flock in the hills outside his native village produced not the hungry fighter of folklore but a companionable youngster with healthy lungs, strong legs, a cheerful outlook, and an unfailing desire to join the merry throng.

Against most predictions, despite the knowledge that he was bound to play regardless, and the weight upon his shoulders, Ntini matured into a fine bowler. As always in cricket, the figures tell the tale, and these days they paint pretty picture. If in the past, respect was grudgingly bestowed, nowadays it is genuine and universal.

Ntini has earned his position, as all sportsmen must, by the power of his play. South Africa's patronised little shepherd has improved, almost literally, by leaps and bounds. Far from complacently accepting his role as a tearaway and a representative, he worked hard at his trade.

Left-handers had long regarded him as an awkward customer because of the way he pushed the ball across them. Orthodox batsmen, though, were able to use the angle to stroke the ball away through the leg-side. Moreover Ntini was inclined to overpitch. He had many mountains to climb.

At first he tried bowling from closer to the stumps but felt inhibited and uncomfortable. Instead he decided to concentrate on cutting the ball around, and developing a delivery that straightens to threaten the right-handers' outside edge. These days he has a bagful of tricks, changes of pace and angle, and the use of the fingers to create movement off the pitch. And he retains his ability to sprint to the crease without losing control of mind or body. Oh yes, and he will still charge in all day in rain or sunshine.

Ntini may never be counted amongst the foremost bowlers the game has known but he keeps dismissing excellent batsmen and his tally of wickets rises. Past captains used to throw him the ball with crossed fingers.

Now they introduce him when a wicket is needed and everyone else is flagging. By dint of his deeds, Ntini has also become an inspiration. Last week a group of township boys were spotted playing a rough and ready version of the game. It has not always been the case.