Game is almost up for Ntini

2009-12-29 00:00

MAKHAYA Ntini is near the end of the road. A bowler of unsurpassed fitness and athleticism, he has served his country with distinction for a decade. Arguably he has held the cricket community together thanks to his combination of dark skin, cheerful manner and superb skill. But the time comes in every career when the body can no longer carry out orders. As far as batsmen are concerned, 34 is regarded as a cut-off point. Spinners can last longer owing to the cerebral nature of their calling. Pace bowlers usually start to slide at about 32. They lose their nip off the wicket, the extra fizz that turns a good ball into a deadly strike. Once batsmen can adjust to movement the game is up. Ntini is 32.

A few speedsters prolong their careers by turning into fast-medium operators with leg-cutters in their armoury, but these are rarities and masters of the craft. Richard Hadlee and Dennis Lillee shortened their runs, reduced their pace and enjoyed second winds. Accordingly, they were able to fight a few more campaigns, take a stack more wickets without any­one calling for their heads. Among mere mortals the end comes quickly and conclusively. Jason Gillespie was a case in point. In 2004, he remained a respected fast bowler and an adept partner for Glenn McGrath. In 2005 he was a trundler unable to trouble any batsmen in that season’s Ashes series.

Ntini seems to have reached that point. It has been coming. He has an ox’s heart and the stamina of a marathon runner, but no longer the penetration of a Test-match bowler. South Africa’s most dangerous bowlers these days are Dale Steyn, Wayne Parnell, Morne Morkel and Fridel de Wet, and after that it is a matter of opinion. For all his willingness and skill, it is hard to find a place for Ntini on the list.

Admittedly, he has been surprising observers ever since he first appeared, but it’s hard to see him lasting much longer. Persistence might bring a few wickets here and there, but the nip is gone. As an experienced player and a patriot, he will soon recognise the signs. Not least among Ntini’s attractions has been his refusal to grizzle, grumble, gripe and growl. Most likely he will withdraw with his head held high.

Ntini’s contribution has been immense. Apparently his background has been somewhat romanticised. The notion that he went straight from shepherding to opening the bowling in Test cricket has been overdone. If they make a movie of his life, they might retain it because audiences love that sort of thing, but the truth is that his origins were not as rough and ready as fancy insists. As much might have been guessed from his discovery and subsequent schooling at Dale College. Inconveniently, too, his first coach was white and blessed with an idealism often denied his con­frères. Let’s not get too hot under the collar about his marginalisation. The ANC has been a good deal more open-minded than its predecessor.

At first, Ntini was patronised. Beyond doubt he was rushed into the thick of the action because he was black. Champions were needed to light the path. Sport had to show it was part of the solution, not the problem. His elevation upset seniors because it suggested that merit was no longer the sole factor at the selection table. Hansie Cronje — who, like Tiger Woods, worked better as myth than man — was desperate to beat the Australians and angry that an apparently lightweight bowler was forced upon him. He felt he was fighting with one hand tied behind his back. And so cynicism took hold.

Truth to tell, Ntini did not look like an international bowler. His action was all wrong. He fell away at delivery, released the ball from wide of the crease, angled it into the right-hander and lacked the yard of pace that sets top-notchers apart. Few bowlers of that type had flourished in Test cricket. Hardly anyone thought Ntini could make the grade. It was not prejudice. It was analysis. And it was mistaken.

Ntini’s qualities had been overlooked. From the outset he hustled and bustled, moved the ball in the air and sometimes off the deck and could bowl flat-out from dawn till dusk. Moreover, his unfamiliar angle often drew indiscretions from batsmen more used to sensible, straight-up- and-down stuff delivered from stump to stump.

Accordingly, Ntini did about five times as well as most of us predicted. As a result he was able to buy time for the cricket community, give it a chance to get down to work.

As he steps aside, so the spotlight focuses on those efforts. Have they borne fruit? Has enough been done? No excuses can be accepted. Zimbabwe is producing a steady supply of fine black cricketers, most of them found at a young age, driven hard by tough coaches, put through strong schools and then left to mix and match. It can be done.


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