Who will break boundaries when Ntini retires?

No sports star unites South Africa like Makhaya Ntini. As he prepares to bow out, Stephen Brenkley visits the town where he grew up to learn why his loss is an issue beyond cricket
Click to follow

To reach the house where Makhaya Ntini grew up takes a three-mile drive down a dirt track. The village of Mdingi consists of maybe 100 homes, some built of stone and a few of baked mud, the conical rondavels intermingled willy-nilly with small one-storey cottages.

Goats and sheep wander about between the houses. A few pigs are penned. There is a primary school and a secondary school and, as the centrepiece of Mdingi, a Methodist church. The very last house in the village is dusky pink in colour, with a corrugated iron roof and a paddock-cum-lawn at the front.

This is where Ntini spent his childhood, brought up by his grandmother who still lives here. He never dreamt of how life might turn out for him because he never knew such a life existed. Next week he will play his 100th Test match for South Africa. He has taken 388 wickets, he is the country's most popular sportsman and an icon: the living embodiment of the new country, where everybody has a chance whatever their name and wherever they come from, if they can only get the breaks.

But the search is on for the new Ntini, and it is now being pursued with some urgency. He is clearly extremely close to the end of his remarkable career and such has been his lessening of pace and therefore penetration that many are opining that he will not see out the end of the impending Test series against England, and that if he does it will be for reasons of political expediency rather than the unquestioned talent, skill and heart that have taken him so far.

Ntini was the first black cricketer to represent South Africa and when he emerged, it was blithely presumed by outsiders that he might be the first of a hitherto untapped production line. If it existed it has malfunctioned. While South Africa's cricket team is undoubtedly multi-cultural its lack of black players is obvious, and the truth is that players such as Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince, for all their palpable non-whiteness, are simply not black Africans. Others have followed Ntini – Mfuneko Ngam, Monde Zondeki – but their presence has been fleeting, they have flattered to deceive.

There are two other major team sports in South Africa: football and rugby union. The former is the sport of the black man and the country is suffering from World Cup fever because of the event which will take place here next year. But the team is faultering and it does not bridge the divide as cricket does. Similarly rugby union, although it has a greater black representation than cricket, does not possess the emotive pull of cricket in this society for all its popularity.

When Ntini departs there will be a gap. The government and Cricket South Africa will insist that it is filled sooner rather than later. A national cricket team consisting of white and coloured players is not seen to be representative of the rainbow nation.

Nor is it, of course. The trouble is that in only one area of the country has cricket been an integral part of the culture of black society. That happens to be the Eastern Cape, where Mdingi lies, off the main road a few miles from King William's Town and north of East London. It is here, if anywhere, that a production line might be established. It is here in the heartland of black South African cricket that Greg Hayes has launched, with a passion that suggests he will not be denied, the quest for the next Ntini.

Hayes is a former all-rounder with the local club Border. He played club cricket for several summers in England and is the high performance manager in the Eastern Cape. A day spent wandering with him in the rural settlements, where there seems no rhyme or reason for people to live, provides object lessons on many themes, including the challenge of finding cricketers. One way or another, in one form or another, Hayes has already been doing it for 20 years.

"Maybe we've lost five years somewhere along the way and it isn't going to happen straightaway," he says. "But there are kids here who can play. The problem of physically getting them to cricket is not easy to get around but if we don't try we're letting them down."

The game has a footing in this country region because for years its menfolk would go off to find work in the northern mines or in Cape Town, be enthralled by cricket and set up teams on their return. There was additional input from British missionaries, whose imprint is still evident. But it was all, of necessity, rudimentary. Until 15 or so years ago, of course, it was also played in isolation. The annual Slaughter of the Sheep tournament – in which each competing team brings a sheep, the winners being allowed to feast on their beast and half of the opposition's – was and is played annually.

Perhaps Ntini's impending walk into the sunset has concentrated minds, perhaps there is a feeling that things do not happen by themselves, that talent has to be spotted. Hayes, with the dedicated support of Gerald Majola, the chief executive of Cricket South Africa, has been instrumental in establishing a multi-stranded, flagship coaching programme in the area aimed at ensuring elite talent is first of all embraced and then encouraged.

It is a joint venture between Cricket South Africa, the Border Cricket Board and the University of Fort Hare in the town of Alice, an institution which features significantly in the history of black South Africa, it being the alma mater of Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko. Its main hub is the university where there is a new indoor school, named after the non-racial cricket pioneer and first non-white president of the South African cricket board Krish Mackerdhuj and where Ngam is the coach.

So far, so another well-intended coaching project. But the feeling exists, and Hayes does nothing to dispel it, that this one has to work. Cricketing bursaries are being offered each year at UFHA and the nearby MSC college. Apart from the Alice site, programmes have been established at places called Middledrift and Healdtown. These could be said to be off the beaten track, dusty villages marked by the scrawny goats, and with cricket grounds plonked without much recourse to design or aesthetics in villages similarly constructed.

They are not easy to reach by car and the cricketers using them do not have transport. It is not like mum or dad will take them in the family car. Usually, there is not a family bike. They must travel from their homes frequently two or three villages away, over another hill. Almost R1m (£81,000) is being spent on this project each year and every bit of it will be needed, not only for equipment but for getting these kids to the grounds.

But it needs organisation and encouragement too. Some of the difficulties are enshrined in Mdingi. It might be thought in the light of Ntini's personal triumph that its inhabitants would be cricket crazy. But the nets and pitch carved out of an arid landscape about 15 years ago are unused.

Healdtown, backed by a cricket-mad businessman called Advocate Ngumbela, is like Lord's compared to Middledrift, where the outfield resembles the cross-country section of a three-day event course and the middle is not much better. But a sinking heart is revived by the advent of Aviwe Mfiki, the 21-year-old coach, whose love of the game can transcend any surface.

"There is a lot of talent here and we can develop it," he said simply but with a belief that outshone the usual platitudes. The other day he was putting through their paces, on a strip of concrete which passed for a net, some 12-year-old kids. Among them was Bamanye Xenxe, a name which it might be worth remembering. He has a lovely approach which leads to a side-on action with discernible away swing. Bamanye has been plucked from his village and, like Ntini before him, has been found a scholarship place at the esteemed Dale College in King William's Town.

There, his game will be honed as Ntini's was 18 years ago and he will receive an education that he would otherwise not have had. Several promising cricketers are channelled in this way but Ntini was the first.

Hayes can recall when he mentioned the boy to Malcolm Andrew, then the school's head. Andrew, who was not utterly unsympathetic to the notion, was still sceptical at taking a 14-year-old kid from a rustic backwater who spoke no English and wore takkies, as plimsoles are known in South Africa, instead of cricket boots.

But it worked. A whole clutch of people were determined to make it work, from Raymond Booi, the rural coach who had first seen something in the tearaway kid, through Hayes, through Andrew, through Mark Wainwright, the Xhosa-speaking boy from a farming family who first shared a dormitory with the new pupil and helped him to settle into an environment that could not have been more alien had he been asked to go to Mars.

It was Ntini himself who showed he had the right stuff, the stuff that saw him reach his cricketing apotheosis by taking 10 wickets in the innings defeat of England at Lord's in 2003. He had probably not heard of the place until he was well into his teens but his joy was unconfined that day and it was shared throughout South Africa.

The quest for the next Ntini may be as fruitless as trying to find the new Bradman or another Sobers, because such precious diamonds are not that plentiful even in this country. But the will is there. Someone will emerge sooner or later. The government of South Africa understandably hopes it will be sooner. The road to Mdingi cannot be as long the next time.

Sport, race and the Rainbow Nation

Quotas, where a certain number have to be non-white, have operated on and off in rugby and cricket since 1994, although the government scrapped them in 2007. The Springbok side that beat the Lions in the decisive second Test last summer had four black players. Bryan Habana is the best known, and would make any world XV. There were two black players in the 2007 World Cup-winning XV, just one more than in 1995, but a growing number of black players is now breaking through. Of the 37-strong squad that toured Europe this autumn 10 were black. The cricket squad for the first Test against England has five non-white players, including Ashwell Prince, who became the first black player to captain the side in 2006. In contrast, South Africa's squad for the World Cup is likely to include one white outfield player, the centre-half Matthew Booth.