South African cricket legend Makhaya Ntini believes racial quotas in the country’s cricket are “long overdue” and hopes to play the mentor’s role for up-and-coming black players to ease their transition into the international game.
Known as ‘The Mdingi Express’, Ntini was one of the finest fast bowlers of his generation, taking 390 test wickets in 101 matches, behind only Shaun Pollock (421) and Dale Steyn (416 and counting) on South Africa’s all-time list.
But now in a new phase of his life post-retirement, he is searching for ways to give back to the game and feels he has an almost unique role that he can play in the complex South African fold.
“I have always seen cricket as a fun game, something to be enjoyed before anything else,” Ntini tells FORBES AFRICA from Harare, where he has been helping Zimbabwe Cricket as acting coach of their senior national team.
“But it has also become an opportunity for young rural boys like myself to build a career and create opportunities for themselves that they might not find elsewhere. That is something we must take very seriously.”
“I used to play Baker’s Mini-Cricket as a boy because it was something new, we never knew the game before it was introduced into the rural areas by [former Cricket South Africa president] Ali Bacher and [administrator] Khaya Majola.”
“The sport was not played in school; we had no television to see it. It was not a game that was part of us. But when given the opportunity to play, it was new, it was exciting.
“There were a few role-models that we could really look up to though. Omar Henry was there when we returned to international cricket in 1991, and he was a wonderful player. Obviously there were wonderful cricketers out there playing, but we did not get to see them.”
Ntini says he feels that had official quotas been introduced at the time he was starting out with the national team, the Proteas would have had a wider pool of players to choose from and been stronger for it.
Cricket South Africa (CSA) has recently announced that an average minimum of six black players, of which two must be black African, will be selected for matches across all three formats of the game over a season.
This is in keeping with a decision years ago to enforce the same quotas at provincial level.
“From my take, it has been long overdue,” says Ntini. “If it had happened at the time of myself, Monde Zondeki, Victor Mpitsang, Garnett Kruger, Geoffrey Toyana, our cricket would have never have gone through the troubles it has.”
“The talent was there, but the quotas were only in the schools and provincial sides.”
“The likes of myself, Herschelle Gibbs, Ashwell Prince and Paul Adams – we had to work harder than anybody else to get recognized. We had to perform in every game to stick around [in the team].”
“We could not have a ‘bad day in the office’ like many other players or suddenly we would be under big pressure. We were looked at in a very different way.”
“I had to wait four years to play in England. I kept being told by [former captain] Hansie Cronje and [ex-coach] Bob Woolmer, ‘you are on a learning curve, you must wait for your chance’.”
“It seemed impossible that I could take the place of an Allan Donald, Jacques Kallis, Brian McMillan, Shaun Pollock or Lance Klusener. These were great players, but I think if I was born seven years later I would have achieved a lot more in the game.”
“Because of that I think we had a responsibility to perform. We had a responsibility in how we trained, how we played, how we gathered ourselves off the field. We needed to make sure that when we went on that field, we had the tools to give our best.”
No-one in their right mind would suggest that new young firebrand fast bowler Kagiso Rabada has benefitted from the recently introduced quota system, he has let his prodigious talent do the talking. The son of a doctor and schooled at the prestigious St Stithians College, Rabada did not have any of the early disadvantages that Ntini endured as a young boy.
But the latter insists he still needs to be mentored and guided along the way.
“He has chosen a narrow road as a career, but he has a wonderful family around him to ensure he does not get big-headed and to offer guidance. He keeps himself grounded,” says Ntini.
“But I can see he is hungry to achieve more than what I did and is not satisfied with what he has done already. He looks as though he is challenging himself all the time.”
But Ntini cautions that international sport is an unforgiving place and says he will always be a sympathetic shoulder for Rabada or any other cricketers making their way in the game, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Sometimes they need people to sit them down and talk to them as brothers,” Ntini says. “I have realized that we lack that in our coaches. They can teach everything about cricket, but our brothers do not have someone that they can easily open up to with their struggles off the pitch.”
“I feel like I can offer advice, because these things can have a major impact on your career. We have coaches to teach cricket, but when the player is off the pitch and in his hotel room, they don’t have people to knock on the door to see how they are doing.”
“Can I open up to an [captain] AB de Villiers as a black cricketer and say, ‘I am struggling with this or that, my girlfriend has just left me, I am going through a divorce’, things like that which have a huge impact on a person?”
“AB will not be able to guide them, I don’t think, but I feel like I can be that person with all that I have been through. If I had the opportunity to be involved on that level, I would jump at it because I see it as a way of giving back to the game and to South African cricket.”
Ntini says he has enjoyed his stint with Zimbabwe Cricket, even if the side did receive some criticism during his tenure for crushing losses to India and New Zealand.
It is, perhaps, unfair to lay the blame for those defeats at the door of Ntini given how little cricket the Zimbabwe national teams plays. Whatever the result, he continues to flash his trademark smile.
“Enjoyment is an understatement, I am loving it [coaching],” he says. “I put my whole heart into it. Look at Zimbabwe cricket and cricketers, how much they have changed from where they were since I got here.”
“They tend to enjoy themselves now, they open up to us, they have the freedom of being able to be you, not the restriction of trying to impress me.”
But he says his heart remains in South Africa and if the right opportunity came to return home, he would jump at it.
“South Africa is my country, I will never run away,” he says.