By HUW RICHARDS
Published: November 3, 2010
If Makhaya Ntini had done nothing but take wickets for South Africa, he would have been a memorable cricketer.
Ntini, though, will go down in history for far more than that. He was the first member of South Africa’s majority black community to play test cricket, perhaps making him post-apartheid South Africa’s most important athlete.
“What Nelson Mandela meant for South Africa, Makhaya meant for cricket,” said a clearly emotional Gerald Majola, chief executive of Cricket South Africa, at the news conference Tuesday in Johannesburg to announce Ntini’s retirement from international play.
“Nobody thought that we as black people would be able to compete, but I’ve done that,” Ntini said.
As historians Bruce Murray and Christopher Merrett have pointed out, cricket in South Africa “is the one major sport that has been widely played by each of the country’s major population groups.”
Ntini was compelling evidence in favor of affirmative-action policies that were implemented on the belief that serious cricketing talent had been lost to South Africa under apartheid. He retired with 390 victims in five-day tests, 11th on the all-time list, and another 266 in one-day internationals.
Ntini, born in 1977, spent his youth under apartheid, herding cows in the Eastern Cape village of Mdingi. He has said that he intends to call his memoirs “Ubulongwe,” which translates as cow patty from his native language.
Spotted as a 14-year-old bowling in torn shoes, he was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious, sport-focused Dale College in nearby King William’s Town, making him one of its first black pupils. Graduating to major-league standard cricket, he was fast-tracked into the South Africa team, making his debut at age 20.
Like many young players chosen on potential, he was a slow starter. His career was nearly derailed for good when he was convicted of rape in 1999, but the charge was dismissed on appeal.
He endured, and ultimately conquered, as one of the outstanding players of the new century. His 380 test wickets between 2000 and 2009 place him second only to Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan as the decade’s top wicket-taker.
He formed a superb partnership of contrasts with his fellow paceman, Shaun Pollock, the only man to have taken more wickets for South Africa. While Pollock probed and pressurized with his formidable control, Ntini prospered through pace — although he was never ultra-quick — and aggression, conceding more runs, but taking wickets more rapidly.
At his peak, between 2005 and 2007, he was the best fast bowler in the world. It was this three-year period that saw him take five wickets in an innings 11 times and 10 in a match — a particularly impressive feat for a fast bowler because of the endurance it requires — three times.
It saw such feats as his 13 wickets for 132, the best test figures ever by a South Africa, against West Indies at Port-of-Spain and dismissing Australia’s intimidatingly powerful Matthew Hayden in all six innings of a three-test series.
He was rated South Africa’s most popular sportsman, ahead of famed soccer players and a World Cup-winning rugby squad, in 2005 and 2007.
“When my body can take no more and my arms are broken, then I’ll go,” he said in the video that introduced his retirement statement.
It did not quite come to that, but he was clearly in decline by the time England visited South Africa last year. He was dropped after the second test, his test career ending on Dec. 30, 2009.
He will not disappear, though. There will be one more ceremonial international appearance, with South Africa’s selectors under orders to choose him for the Twenty20 match against India at Durban on Jan. 9. He also plans to continue playing professionally in South Africa for the Warriors.
And the energy, endurance, ebullience and optimism that have fueled a hugely successful international career will go into giving others the opportunity he has had. Openly worried that, as he puts it, young players from his home district often “disappear after six months,” Ntini is planning his own cricket academy in Mdantsane at a cost of about 15 million rand, or about $2.18 million.
Record rally for Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka staged an extraordinary comeback Wednesday, breaking the oldest record in one-day international cricket to beat Australia by one wicket in Melbourne. Chasing 240, Sri Lanka looked doomed at 107 for 8 when specialist bowler Lasith Malinga joined Angelo Mathews. They added 132, beating the all-time ninth wicket record set in 1983 before Malinga (54) was run out with the scores even. Muttiah Muralitharan struck the winning runs for Sri Lanka.
*Posted in NY Times