History beckons as Ntini closes on 100th Test cap

The icon of the Rainbow Nation looks back at how far he has come, while Stephen Brenkley considers his place among the greats
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The Independent Online

Makhaya Ntini has come a long way in a country that has made a similar journey. Once, it would have been unthinkable for him to play cricket at all; tomorrow he will play his 100th Test match for South Africa.

It is a joyous, unexpected, deserved milestone. Ntini is the poster boy of black sport in this country, a kid from the country who has made it big in what was a white man's game. His story embodies hope, faith and redemption.

"To start off, I never thought I would play cricket for South Africa," he said. "Being part of the team and one of the only black cricketers from the rural areas, and looking at where I am now is something you can't explain to anybody. It is history on its own and it has filled me with so much pride."

Ntini is no token presence. He has taken 388 Test wickets at 28.37, 11th on the all-time list, behind only Shaun Pollock for South Africa, and the only bowler from his country to have taken 10 wickets in a Test match at Lord's. His elation that day was unconfined.

But Ntini has other assets apart from a chest-on, low-slung bowling action, usually employed from wide of the crease. He has a huge heart and he loves playing, usually sporting a wide smile. They make for a potent combination and enhance his celebrity in a country where he has four times been sportsman of the year.

His status was no better explained than by his presence on stage at the football World Cup draw in Cape Town a few days ago. Here was a cricketer helping to market the biggest football event on the planet. That night he shared a dressing room with David Beckham and delightedly told his audience yesterday that he had questioned the footballer about the rumour that he wore his underwear only twice.

"He said he had heard about this story but that it was all lies," Ntini said. "But I told him that if I was his gardener I would sleep next to his dustbin because I would know the following morning something is going to be dumped there and it's only going to have been used once so I can use it again."

Ntini smiled widely at this. His mischief and his ability to show his pearly whites in hard times are additional attributes of an engaging man. But he is still a man formed by his roots, the kid from a tiny village who pitched up unknown and unknowing at his first trial match wearing a pair of "takkies", or plimsoles, which were so old that the soles were flapping as he ran in.

He has never forgotten. These days he might live in some splendour in East London, but he keeps in touch with his home village of Mdingi. Ntini is so obviously one of those rare people who has made a difference but this barely occurred to him at the time it all started.

"Not really at all because I was still trying to find my feet," he said. "It's only now, when I think back and look back at what I have achieved and what people of colour have done since then, I feel I have done something for my country." But he can see the changes now.

"Basically, South Africa has changed. From the beginning of coloured people being involved in cricket it looked more of a Rainbow Nation team because we have all the ratios involved in the set-up. It made us feel so much more comfortable because we could share. It made us become one family.

"If I can take you to where I come from you will see. It's in every single street. Every single kid is carrying a cricket bat even if it's not a proper cricket bat. He will be carrying something that showed you that cricket in that particular area is played and that he only needs to be polished to go forward."

South Africa is searching for another Ntini now, as these columns chronicled last week, and one day soon they will find another black country kid with talent and heart and joie de vivre. But he will not be Ntini. He was the first, and at Centurion Park tomorrow – where, incidentally, he thinks he can capture the 12 wickets needed to make him the 11th bowler to have taken 400 in Tests – he will demonstrate why.

Mdingi meteor: Ntini's record

* Born 6 July 1977, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.

*Test Debut 19 March 1998 v Sri Lanka.

*Ntini has played 99 Test matches for South Africa, taking 388 wickets at an average of 28.37, the eleventh most wickets taken in a career.

*Top 10 wicket takers in Test history:

1 M Muralitharan (ICC/SL) 792 wickets. 2 S Warne (Aus) 708. 3. A Kumble (India) 619. 4 G McGrath (Aus) 563. 5 C Walsh (WI) 519. 6 N Kapil Dev (Ind) 434. 7 HJ Radlee (NZ) 431. 8 SM Pollock (SA) 421. 9 W Akram (Pak) 414. 10 C Ambrose (WI) 405.