Ntini, the first black cricketer to play for his country, is a legend of the game — a true sportsman through and through.
In a sports-mad country like South Africa where football and rugby are the leading team sports, its no mean achievement for a cricketer to be recognised as the country’s most popular sportsman, nicknamed the “Mdingi Express” at the peak of his career.
Here was a black player, plucked out of a rural community in the Eastern Cape, making it into the Proteas side not via any racial quotas, but in fact as one of the leading match-winners in the team — a world-class fast bowler.
But Ntini’s best days are now behind him, an eventuality that awaits every professional athlete.
As he has grown older, Ntini has lost his trademark aggression and pace.
After struggling for rhythm in the first Test at Centurion, taking only 2 for 119, his inclusion in the second Test in Durban at the expense of Friedel de Wet, a promising young white player, attracted sharp criticism.
While paying tribute to Ntini, Graeme Smith, the South African captain, made the remarks that Ntini’s case was “sensitive”. What Smith meant in essence was that as the only black player in the team, and with no other ethnic African realistically staking a claim for a Test place, South Africa would move a step backward in terms of integration if Ntini was dropped.
My feeling at the time was that Ntini should not have been called up for the third Test in Cape Town, which eventually was the case.
Had he been included, that would have been a quota selection, and what great betrayal it would have been to a man who at his prime was the best in the world.
Ntini is not a quota and he should never be. Ntini is a fighter and I admire his determination to reclaim his Test place, but at that I’m convinced, like the sportsman he is, would have spurned selection ahead of De Wet.
The Ntini case had me thinking back to Zimbabwe’s own problems with race and quotas which contributed to the demise of the game in 2004 and which could return to haunt the game if certain loose cannons are allowed to use the racial card again.
Zimbabwe Cricket is undergoing change. A well-received franchise system has seen return of some players from exile. Suddenly there is a fair representation of race in Zimbabwe cricket again.
Accusations have been made of favouritism in some franchises and even in the national teams. This must be investigated and if it’s true that such a practice exists, appropriate action must be taken against offenders.
Such acts work against the very idea of a franchise system, rebuilding and taking the game to the people.
While accusations of favouritism based on race cannot be ignored, people must be wary of players and other personalities in the game who hide behind the racial card for fear of competition. No one has a monopoly over selection or official posts.
Competition is healthy, and cream will always rise to the top. The days of quotas are long gone.
Ntini shunned quotas and worked extremely hard to be the best. And he became a legend of the game.