Ntini points out right road for black South Africa's new generation of talent

One man has given his country hope of realising its untapped potential. Stephen Brenkley talks to the Proteas' fast bowler in Port Elizabeth
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It is a measure of how far South Africa have come that Makhaya Ntini will play his 50th Test match on Friday. It is an indication of how far they have to go that he will be one of only three non-white players in the side.

Ntini is one of the best bowlers in the world, 10th in the ratings and one half of a durable and prolific opening partnership. He was the leading Test wicket-taker last year and achieved his crowning glory by becoming the first South African to take 10 in a match at Lord's.

For a week afterwards his smile could have been removed only by heavy-duty plastic surgery, and his ecstasy was born not only of self-satisfaction but of what his deed meant for a race of people back home. None of it would have been possible or permissible 12 years ago and maybe we will not be able to understand quite where Ntini's place is in the firmament for 112 years.

But he is a significant figure in this South African team, make no mistake, and he is becoming more crucial by the match. The balance of the team for the series against England that begins tomorrow is obsessing the nation. Actually, it is a topic that invariably obsesses this nation. That, you should understand, is not necessarily the balance between batsmen, bowlers and all-rounders but between white cricketers and non-white cricketers. The next Ntini is not yet on the horizon and, as ever, people are asking questions.

These take two forms. One poses the thought that if development programmes have been in place for 20 years and there are some 30 million blacks in the country, compared with five million whites, why does the national team not yet reflect that equation?

The other form of query enters still more dangerous territory and was embodied by the former South Africa cricket captain Clive Rice, who asked no questions but made the statement last week that blacks were being given an unfair advantage over whites in the selection process.

Ntini, a man plainly at ease with himself, somehow rises above all this. He will trot out the usual line of the pro athlete that sport is sport and politics is politics, but he can stay cool in the hot air being spouted.

"I believe that as a cricketer you get selected because you deserve to be selected. I know what's going on, but it is not the job of the player to get involved in the politics but to focus on playing.

"In the provincial game there are a lot more black players and the experience that white players bring is important. When it comes to the national set-up it will be a long process because the step up is a big, big one, but it will definitely happen. Give us two or three years and you will see that. I've seen what Clive Rice said but he's past his stage. This is a new generation."

Ntini himself first played for a club called Mgingi some 40 miles north of East London on the Eastern Cape. It is a mistake to suppose that rural blacks did not play cricket in the bad old days. The game in country areas has a history going back 150 years and Ntini started in the Amacla Egusha (sides of sheep) tournaments that are a staple of life and begin on Boxing Day.

Ntini got lucky. He was discovered and given a cricket bursary to Dale College. His life was changed. But prosperity has not altered him much. His South African home these days is in East London but he still returns to his village, these days as a conquering hero, before each and every tour.

No article about Makhaya Ntini will ever be written without mention of the rape charge of which he was tried and acquitted on appeal not long after he had first broken through to international cricket. That trial and his background merely reinforced his desire to succeed. If anybody can advise black players of the struggles they face it is Ntini. He concedes that there is still a large element of difficulty for the talented black player who in marginal cases might, quite rightly, just get picked ahead of a white player but then finds the weight of expectation can be crippling.

The latest to be placed in this difficult position is the 24-year-old wicketkeeper Thama Tsolekile, who replaced Mark Boucher for the two-match tour of India and has been retained for this match. Boucher, though not everybody's cup of char, had played 75 consecutive Tests as feisty keeper-batsman, easily a South African record. Last week, the new coach, Ray Jennings fuelled the fires of intolerance by saying he would have preferred Boucher.

Ntini said: "Tsolekile is at the stage now where he can expect criticism. I remember it and how I had to fight for my place in the side because I know I belonged in it. I had to show others. We go out and have a drink together and I try to advise him that I started life like him. Even now I still have to work extra hard. If I'd have taken all that was thrown at me and put it in my head it might have broken me. It actually gave me more energy to prove my point and that's what I've told Thama."

Ntini will share the new ball in tomorrow's match for the 25th time with Shaun Pollock. Only eight partnerships (including Pollock with Allan Donald) have lasted longer in Test history. His nature is summed up in his generosity: "With Shaun it means I've got someone to hide behind."

He is of a sunny disposition and despite the lobby that insists change is too slow he observed: "Everywhere I go what people remember about me is the 10 wickets at Lord's and I think it had an impact. Driving from the airport yesterday there were kids playing cricket in their back yards. It's one of the greatest things to see. Twenty years ago it would have been only football. But now everywhere you go it's cricket." Now there was hope for the future.