James Lawton: Ntini's failure to fire shows Capello how to deal with Beckham's fading powers

Ntini will know his fate soon enough. Beckham's will only unravel after vast debate
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The Independent Online

After five days of fierce sunshine and intriguing and ultimately compelling Test action the rain has come hard and unrelenting. The big sky over the veld has turned into a grey blanket torn by flashes of lightning.

Yet if you love sport, and never tire of seeing the moments of drama and truth that constitute its greatest strength, the spirit is surely buoyed against the bleakest day.

This is true for many reasons and not least the latest example of the England cricket team's extraordinary ability to extricate itself from the most difficult of circumstances.

They have reminded us again that if they can bring calamity on their heads as quickly as it takes KP to conceive a brainstorm, no one can say they do not have the nerve and sheer cussedness to repel the worst consequences.

Yet stretching beyond even the last-wicket heroics of the serially defiant Paul Collingwood and his heroic assistant Graham Onions is the widely interpreted meaning of a remarkable decision by South Africa's captain Graeme Smith, a veteran of one of sport's most demanding jobs at the age of 28.

Ostensibly, Smith's last throw in the final over of a match in which England had been pushed to the very limits of their resistance, failed.

The great Makhaya Ntini, surprisingly recalled to the centre of action in place of the unheralded new boy, Friedel de Wet, who had carried his team to the point of victory, could not deliver the final strike.

However, the rising suspicion here is that Smith's move was concerned with rather more than the outcome of a single Test match. Of course, he was hoping for some brilliant evocation of the best of a long and emotion-filled career, yet it appears the captain may also have been reaching out for something else.

Some believe he was also seeking to define how even the most illustrious of sports stories should be either prolonged or brought to a close and that, if it is to be the latter case, the prevailing evidence has to be supplied not by lingering nostalgia for great days and respect for wonderful deeds, but an acid examination of current ability.

We will know more about this when South Africa select their team for the second Test in Durban at the weekend. With their most formidable strike bowler, Dale Steyn, apparently certain to be fit after the hamstring tweak that kept him out of the action at Centurion, logically it comes down to a straight choice between the legend Ntini and the extremely impressive late arrival, 29-year-old De Wet.

But then logic in South African sport, as elsewhere, is not always the ruling factor. If Smith has his ideas about the Ntini-De Wet issue, the selectors may be rather more mindful of political pressures that may build quickly around the fact that Ntini is the only black African currently operating in the South African team.

For different reasons, including intense popularity among English football fans and perhaps commercial considerations, it is a dilemma familiar to observers of England's football team, in which David Beckham, who will be 35 when the World Cup finals start here next June, hangs on to his place with the adhesion of a limpet.

The difference is that Beckham for quite some time has been shielded from the kind of brutal examination that faced Ntini, two years his junior, on Sunday.

This could change, of course, if the star of LA Galaxy reappears effectively in the colours of Milan in truly vital circumstances over the next few months.

Then, Fabio Capello, like Smith and the South African selectors, will be armed with rather more than an awareness that he is dealing not only with a cherished national folk hero, but someone who might justify his place around the most pivotal of the action.

So far under Capello, Beckham has been asked to perform only cameo parts. By comparison, in his 100th Test Ntini was required to prove that he could still deliver the force of a genuine match-winner. When it mattered most, he couldn't and this may provide South African cricket with the opportunity to say: "Thank you, Makhaya, for everything you have done, but it is over."

Ntini will know his fate soon enough. Beckham's no doubt will only unravel after vast and hugely sentimental national debate.

On balance the feeling here is that the South African approach, if indeed the deeper reading of what Smith did turns out to be true and he is allowed to act on the results, is the superior one. You may say the comparison is being stretched somewhat but at least in one strict sense it is surely valid.

If Beckham returns to South Africa, where he made such an impact on the media at the recent World Cup draw that he is now being seen, rather absurdly, as the all-important factor in England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup, it will be to the cost of a younger candidate. He will get one of the places that under a man like Capello you would normally assume could never be won other than for reasons of professionalism stripped bare of even a hint of sentimental favour.

No doubt Beckham's supporters will say that he has qualities, apart from a still enviable ability to kick a football with great skill, especially when afforded a little time and space, that stretch far beyond the borders of age and residual strength.

However, it is still true that since the appointment of Capello Beckham has never been asked to produce what was required of Ntini when everything hung in the balance.

He has not been invited to operate at the very heart of his team's effort, a basic demand, you might have thought, for anyone involved in the highest form of competition that is represented supremely both by World Cup football and Test match cricket.

Meanwhile, we wait for South Africa's moment of decision with considerable fascination.

When Ntini took his first wicket in his 100th Test appearance – it was the valuable one of England's captain, Andrew Strauss – everyone in the ground was offered a free drink, even though the sun had scarcely burnt off the dew, let alone risen above the yardarm.

The toast was to a great cricketer and no one could have suspected at that moment that it might be the last opportunity while he still operated at the peak of his game.

If it proves to be so, it will have been a poignant sip of cold beer. Yet when you consider the oldest verity of sport, the demand that there will always be a time when the best you can do has to be consigned to the past, there is more than a hint South African sport may have properly acknowledged one of its greatest heroes – and got the timing almost perfectly right.

Tiger will find way back to natural habitat on course

Guess who voters in a poll appearing in a leading South African newspaper have picked as their sportsman of the decade?

They went one point higher, at 52 per cent, than American sports editors in naming Tiger Woods the man.

Some of the ticks in the Woods box, it is true, were made before interest in his sexual proclivities became so obsessive you might be excused for thinking he is the first hugely rewarded and celebrated sportsman or actor or politician to have stepped beyond the bounds of marriage.

However, the reminder of his status, which in the US put him ahead of Lance Armstrong and Roger Federer, may do something to work against the nonsensical idea that the decision to retire "indefinitely" from golf is anything more than a temporary device to reduce at least some of the pressure that was building so inexorably.

Tiger, like much of the rest of humanity, has no doubt been exposed as a flawed individual but as a golfer we have to believe he will remain for some considerable time in a class of his own. A poll is one thing. His reappearance on a golf course, no later than the US Masters next April is my guess, will be something rather less easy to dispute.

No fairy-tale ending at World Cup – but still a love story

There is not much point in pretending that, along with much joy, next summer's World Cup here will also bring fresh and gnawing evidence of some terrible inequities.

If Fifa's priorities were somewhat different it might make a gesture along the lines of reduced admission prices to the point where the majority of citizens didn't rate their chances of attending one of the matches in a shiny new stadium roughly on a par with a weekend jaunt to the moon.

In the circumstances it is at least something that there are plans for even the meanest townships to be supplied with large screens for the enhancement of the idea of a great national party.

There are worries about security and cost, greatly exaggerated, insist the authorities, as they would, but something can be said with certainty.

It is that the great tournament will never have visited a land where the game is more deeply loved – and by the majority of a people who long ago learnt that in the end you are not likely to be given happiness. You have to make it on the only available terms.

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