Ntini and company ready for a sting after the sorry tales

Now that they're safely through customs we can mention it. This young South African squad, here to take on England and Zimbabwe for the NatWest Series, might have much to learn in terms of playing international cricket, but among their ranks are hardened graduates from the University of Life.

Consider this: back in 1998 Andrew Hall went to draw money from a cashpoint in Johannesburg, only to be confronted by armed robbers and shot at close range. He escaped with a bullet in his right hand and his life.

In April 1999, Makhaya Ntini was convicted of rape and handed a six-year prison sentence. Six traumatic months followed before Ntini, then 21 and dropped from the World Cup squad, was cleared on appeal.

In May 2001, Herschelle Gibbs, Andre Nel and Paul Adams were among those caught smoking marijuana in a Caribbean hotel room. Gibbs, an extravagantly gifted opening batsman, had just returned from serving a six-month ban for his involve- ment in a Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal; the batsman was supposed to get out before 20 but felt so good he forgot and blasted 70-odd.

Then, earlier this year while on South African "A" duty in Australia, Nel was again in trouble, arrested for drink- driving around the streets of Perth. He was sent home and arrived at Northamptonshire claiming to have turned over a whole new forest.

All are in the 16-man squad for the NatWest Series which starts this week. While England were squaring two matches with Pakistan last week, South Africa eased their way past Ireland and then Sussex. On Wednesday they get a chance to further hone their game with a 50-overs match against Worcestershire and on Saturday it's England at The Oval.

Hall, Ntini, Gibbs, Nel and Adams already have enough stories to tell their wide-eyed grandchildren, but it's probable they would prefer to relate how they beat England. In England. Despite having been the second best team in world cricket for some time, a post-apartheid Test series win on English soil has eluded them.

However, as far as the one-day game is concerned, the visitors know what it takes, having won the Texaco Trophy 2-1 the last time they toured here, in 1998. On that occasion only five of the 16 youngsters (average age 25) were among the party - Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock, Mark Boucher and the above-mentioned Adams and Ntini.

While Adams continues to employ the most awkward action in world cricket - his left-arm wrist spin has been described as a frog in a blender, an octopus falling out of a tree and someone stealing the hubcab off a moving car - it's Ntini who has matured into one of South Africa's main weapons of much destruction.

Where he was once viewed as an "affirmative appointment" in what remains a colour conscious South Africa, the fast bowler is now among the first names on the teamsheet. Having taken 100 wickets in both forms of the international game Ntini is as likely to "think" a batsman out as he is to try to nail him with pace. It might have taken a while for him to be accepted in right-wing households, but these days the East London product is one of the most recognisable and liked faces in South African cricket.

As is Gibbs, the best fielder and the most talented sportsman in the squad, having chosen cricket at the expense of rugby when he was touted as a future Springbok fly-half. He is particularly looking forward to the duel with England's new quick bowlers, something the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, will be watching with interest.

For it was Fletcher, while coaching Western Province, who started to knock the rough edges off Gibbs. "Duncan was a huge part of my development as a batsman," he says. "It will be interesting to see what strategies he employs against me because I've matured a lot and I've made runs against the best in the world."

Challenges await in every department, but this rough and ready South African team wouldn't have it any other way.