Ntini hits a century
Different people will have different ideas about the defining moments in the young history of Cricket South Africa and its predecessor, the United Cricket Board of South Africa.
There was that incredible, historic and emotional moment when Clive Rice led the Proteas out for the first time at Kolkata’s intimidating Eden Gardens; there was South Africa’s stunning nine-wicket victory over Australia at the equally famous SCG that launched our first ever World Cup campaign; and there was Jonty Rhodes’ swallow dive run out of Inzamam-ul-Haq that was to become the most memorable photographic image of the whole tournament.
Certainly they were all big moments but surely none can compare with the significance of Makhaya Ntini’s first selection for the Proteas in an ODI at the Waca in Perth during the 1997-98 tour of Australia, or, more importantly, his Test debut at the beautiful Sahara Park Newlands against Sri Lanka two months later.
His selection had to be seen not only in the context of where he had come from but also in the context of what it meant for the establishment of a new South African cricketing order.
Makhaya was born a year after the Soweto riots which changed the country for ever. The benefits were obviously obscured by rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas at the time but, by the time he was 13 years old, Nelson Mandela was a free man and the horizon of possibilities had changed forever for the Makhaya Ntinis of South Africa.
Had Makhaya been born as little as a decade earlier it is highly unlikely that he would ever have had the chance to play the game of cricket let alone become one of the finest practitioners of his art in the world and a champion of the people.
His move from the sheep-grazing hill of Mdingi to the world of opportunity at King Williamstown’s Dale College came just in time. He was soon on his way to England with the first ever representative official South African under-19 side in 1995 where his captain was Neil McKenzie and his team mates included Boeta Dippenaar, Ashwell Prince and his comrade throughout his cricketing career, Mark Boucher.
The two had grown up in schools clashes brought together by the huge rivalry that existed between Dale College and East London’s Selborne College. It was Boucher who would be the other half of his first dismissals in both ODI (Stephen Fleming) and Test cricket (Aravinda de Silva).
They weren’t half bad wickets to get on your international debut and Ntini followed it by dismissing both De Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya in his second Test at SuperSport Park.
When Ntini made his Test debut he was just 20 years old. More importantly he had played only 20 first-class matches and had taken barely 50 first-class wickets.
But he had convinced this writer at least that he was getting ready for bigger things. December 13, 1996, was a day of huge significance for South African cricket. It was the first day of the SuperSport Series match between Western Province and Border at Sahara Park Newlands. Western Province had won the toss on a lively track and their formidable all-Protea pace attack of Meyrick Pringle, Brett Schultz, Alan Dawson, Craig Matthews and Eric Simons had dismissed their visitors for 210.
One might have expected Vasbert Drakes to be the great threat to the Western Province batsmen but it was Ntini who scythed his way through a top order that included four internationals in Desmond Haynes, Jacques Kallis, HD Ackerman and Simons.
The Border teenager took five of the first seven wickets to fall as the home side collapsed to 116/7 and eventually had the satisfaction of getting rid of top-scorer Haynes (99) as well to finish with an innings return of 6/49 in 18.1 overs.
He also dismissed Haynes in the second innings and, although Western Province won comfortably in the end by eight wickets, it was evident that a new star had been born. Indeed, there were two as Boucher made 71 and 68 not out and took six catches.
Makhaya’s international debut may have come ahead of schedule but he showed that he was a very quick learner. Playing Sri Lanka at home was one thing, taking on England in a Test series in England was something different altogether. He played in the third and fifth Tests – missing the fourth through injury – and took his best figures up to then of 4/72 in the latter match at Headingley.
The next year was a difficult one for Makhaya as he had to clear his name from a criminal prosecution but it says much for his strength of character that he regrouped his international career as effectively as he did against New Zealand in the 2000-2001 summer.
Bloemfontein’s OUTsurance Oval has always been one of his favourite grounds for it was there that he re-launched his career at first-class level in the 1999-2000 season by taking a hat trick and it was there that he started to achieve a permanent place in the national side.
The opening Castle Test against New Zealand was made famous when Allan Donald, one of Bloemfontein’s favourite sons, took his 300th Test wicket. But it was also a famous occasion for Makhaya. The Test was played on a typically flat track in conditions of extreme heat and I remember Hansie Cronje admitting to me some time later that he had almost given up on the win as his attack struggled to get past obstinate Kiwi resistance.
Makhaya has never been known to give up a fight, even when the odds have been stacked against him or his team. Without this tenacity and the ability to overcome the obstacles that history and politics had placed in his way he would never have achieved the heights that he has scaled.
He kept on charging in, ball after ball, over after over, to win the match for the Proteas and claim a six-wicket haul. It earned him a joint Castle man of the match award with Jacques Kallis.
That was the effective launch pad of his career. Donald’s career was starting to run down and Makhaya was emerging as a new “go to” man when a breakthrough was needed.
The landmarks started to unfold in front of him: 100 Test wickets, then 200 and finally 300 on home turf at Axxess DSL St. George’s.
There were other significant marks too. His 10-wicket haul against England at Lord’s in 2003 made him unique among South African Test cricketers at the game’s most famous ground. Indeed such is the batting friendly nature of Lord’s these days that no bowler, either English or foreign, has managed a 10-wicket bag since.
He went on to take 13/132 at Port of Spain’ Queen’s Park Oval in 2005 for South Africa’s best Test match return ever, either before or since unity.
What gave him particular pleasure was his 377th Test wicket because it took him past the legendary West Indies fast bowler, Malcolm Marshall, who has not so much been his mentor but his role model and inspiration.
It is interesting to compare video footage of when Makhaya played for the under-19 side in 1995 with that of his later international career by which time he had made first-hand observations of Marshall in action and re-modelled his game accordingly.
Makhaya’s best year statistically was in 2006 when he took 58 wickets in only 10 Test matches against Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and India. This included back-to-back 10-wicket hauls against Australia at Sahara Stadium Kingsmead and New Zealand at SuperSport Park.
It was the third time he had taken more than 50 wickets in a calendar year, the others being in 2003 (59 wickets in 12 matches) and 2008 (54 wickets in 15 matches).
He has taken four 10-fers which is a South African best and 18 5-fers which is only surpassed by Donald’s 20 on the Proteas’ all-time list.
Now he goes into his 100th Test match with 388 career Test wickets for 11th place on the all-time list. His next target is the exclusive 400 club (only 10 members) and the