Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ntini relishes prospect of 100th cap

At Centurion on Wednesday, an African icon will reach a very special milestone. When, back in March 1998, Makhaya Ntini became the first black South African to represent his country, few could have predicted that he would still be going strong more than a decade later. And yet, he now stands on the cusp of 100 Test caps, an achievement matched by only six out-and-out fast bowlers.

"It's something you can only dream about," Ntini told Cricinfo during South Africa's training camp in Potchefstroom. "You look at most fast bowlers and they never pass 100 caps. For me, being a fast bowler, it's something that you start thinking about once you reach 70-odd games. Every player wants to achieve it.

"For me, playing 100 times for my country - from a time when you thought, as a black cricketer, it wouldn't be possible to penetrate and be successful among a white-dominated sport, it gives a lot of inspiration to younger people. If I can do it, so can they."

These days, Ntini is among the most prominent role-models in his country. Only last week, he was in Cape Town, taking part in the draw for the 2010 Football World Cup. But a decade ago, when he launched his career, he himself had role-models to look up to - and in most cases, to play alongside.

"Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Lance Klusener, Brian McMillan. Those were the main players, then I became the fifth one," said Ntini. "I took all the advice and practised it. When one retired, my chances came along, and I knew injuries would come along. That kept me going. And to have a captain like Hansie Cronje, the person who told me I was on a learning curve. He said: 'Stay fit, stay focused and the chance will come'."

Ntini was just 20 years old when he took the field at Newlands for his first Test against Sri Lanka, and to this day, the moment he was presented with his cap remains his proudest moment. "When you are stood out there on the field before play, the captain pulls out the cap and says: 'Here's your first one. Hopefully the first of many.'"

In terms of onfield action, however, few memories can contend with his stunning performance at Lord's in 2003, when he became the first South African to claim ten wickets on the most famous ground in the world, in a performance that propelled his country to a memorable innings victory.

"Lord's, obviously, was special because it was a long wait," said Ntini. "Four years previously I spoke to Corrie van Zyl [the assistant coach] and said if I get my chance I want to leave my name on the board. Then, when I played in 2003, he reminded me of that and told me it was my chance. After the first five-wicket haul he tapped me on the shoulder and said: 'There are only nine players who have done a ten-for.'

Ntini was made to wait for his tenth of the match, as Andrew Flintoff clubbed a memorable but futile century, but eventually, with two wickets remaining Steve Harmison holed out to Andrew Hall, and Ntini had made his notch in history. "When the moment arrived I couldn't even feel myself because everywhere I looked the crowd were standing and clapping," he said. "I had to kiss the ground of Lord's. It was moment I had been waiting for."

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