Cricket: Cattle-herder Ntini wins his place in history

A little over four years ago Makhaya Ntini was made to promise not to wear his new cricket boots when he went out to round up the cattle. Yesterday he became the first black African to play for South Africa.

Peter Robinson reports from Johannesburg on the rise of the 20-year-old fast bowler whose elevation carries a message beyond sport.

It was in July 1993 that Raymond Bool, a development officer for the Border Cricket Board in South Africa's eastern Cape, came upon a barefoot 15-year-old in Mdingi, a rural hamlet with a population of 500.

Ntini was a little too old and too big for the mini-cricket programme Bool was establishing, but the teenager was enthusiastic and, what is more, looked like he knew something about bowling.

Intrigued, Bool lent the youngster a pair of takkies (plimsolls) and arranged for him to travel to King William's Town, some 10 miles away, for a net. Even more impressed, Bool contacted Greg Hayes, the man in charge of Border's development programme, and they decided to try him out in a junior cricket festival in Queenstown.

Hayes bought Ntini his first pair of boots and socks and let him loose. He was wild, he was wayward, but when he got it straight, he had something.

"At lunch on that first day in Queenstown," says Hayes, "Makkie came clattering into the dining hall for lunch. He still had his boots on. I had to tell him to take them off. And at the end of the week, when we sent him home, I made him promise not to wear them for herding cattle. They were only to be worn, I said, when he was playing cricket."

Two years later he was chosen for the South African Under-19 side who toured England, and in November 1996 he played for Border against Mike Atherton's England, claiming the wickets of Alex Stewart and Darren Gough.

Ntini was selected to tour Australia after the United Cricket Board decided to add a "previously disadvantaged player" to the 15-man party. Roger Telemachus of Boland was chosen, but he failed a fitness test and 24 hours before the side flew out, Ntini was called up.

Telemachus is of mixed blood and hails from the western Cape and a cricket culture which produced, among others, Basil D'Oliveira and Omar Henry, and the two other youngsters, who are also currently in Australia, Herschelle Gibbs and Paul Adams.

Ntini is Xhosa and as a full-blooded African, he is the first genuine product of the UCB's development programme. However, although Ntini has the talent, it has to be said that the UCB makes no secret of its desire to field a side representative of South Africa's racial groups.

When he played against England two years ago, Ntini was medium-fast. Four months in the gym during the South African winter has added 6lb to his chest and shoulders. His action is more chest-on in the West Indies fashion and the overall result is a bowler two or three yards quicker and more controlled.

The Australians were given a taste yesterday when Ntini made his historic appearance in South Africa's opening tour game - a 31-run win over the Australian Cricket Board Chairman's XI in Perth. A 10,138 crowd at Lilac Hill saw Ntini hit the deck hard and sustain good pace to take 0-24 from seven overs. After Justin Langer, Middlesex's opening batsman next season, had hooked him for six, Ntini banged one into the left-hander's ribs.

Bob Woolmer, the South African coach, has said that Ntini will be considered for the one-day internationals, "but if he wants to play in the Test team, he'll have to fight his way in like everyone else. No one walks into the Test side".

His chance will come, for the South Africans are looking five years down the line when Allan Donald finishes his playing career.

Donald, who supplied the pace for Warwickshire last season, has promised to take Ntini under his wing. Donald is an Afrikaner as is the South African captain, Hansie Cronje. Two Afrikaners and a Xhosa? Perhaps South African cricket is doing something right.