Last Updated: 10/07/20 1:52pm
Makhaya Ntini was a ferocious fast bowler, taking 390 Test wickets for South Africa in an international career that spanned 13 years.
That tells only a fraction of the story though and in an in-depth interview with Nasser Hussain filmed in January 2020, Ntini talks about his remarkable journey from herding cattle in his small village in the Eastern Cape to becoming the first black African to play cricket for South Africa and going on to play 101 Tests.
You can hear the interview in full by listening to our podcast in the player below.
Ntini on growing up in Eastern Cape…
Growing up in a village far away from everything, believing that what you have, that is what is in front of you, it never mattered to us. We were raised by good parents, good family that really cared about us and made sure we went to school. We’d come home from school to to-do lists where you’d fetch cattle and run the horses, when it comes to the weekend, and being able to fetch water. That was the norm and within all of that we were so fortunate to be brought up in that environment that made us comfortable wherever you are because of the lack of everything that you could mention the name of. It was lovely.
It was an environment that you should be proud of, that you can tell your kids ‘that’s how we were raised’, being able to look after yourself regardless of what comes at you, you are able to handle it very well. The starvation and being able to sustain your life, we knew all of it from those villages.
When you are growing up and you’ve got cattle, calves, horses and all those things – they need you. The moment you see the cattle or the goats going to mess up someone else’s farm, you have to get out of the class and run to get there! It became our norm and running was something we just got used to, being able to run miles to fetch the cows because you needed to be back home very quickly. It is like the Kenyans, they run from village to village to go to school and that was built into us, it was almost like you grew up and your life depended on your own feet!
Ntini on warming his feet up with cow dung…
You have one pair of shoes and that pair of shoes you have to wear right through the year, 12 months, and you only wear them when you go to school. Away from school, you put them under your bed and then you are barefooted. When that pair is old, the only way you can warm your feet is to put your feet in cow dung. Then you wait and nobody disturbed the cow when they were doing the dung because you wanted it to be piled up so you fit your feet into it and then you get warm and you can continue your journey, taking the cows to the field to graze.
It became something to remind yourself of where you come from. Never run away from your roots. These kinds of small things always hit you, if you’re feeling low and you’re not performing on the cricket field, the little things that you see can take you out of the pressure situation and brings you to an environment that brings you laughter and allows you to rejoice in those moments where you remember yourself and where you come from.
Ntini on being the first black South African to play for South Africa…
It was the happiest time, going home to tell my parents that I’m going away for a while because I’ve been picked for the national team. The moment that I could not even put in writing.
Not at that time [did I feel the pressure] because cricket was still part of my joyful moments, there was no breaking into it and understanding what pressure is. I was still young and enjoying every moment just running around and bowling to whoever is batting. Being able to learn cricket, that extra level of it. The players actually guided me – ‘this is what you need to do to get to the level’.
Cricket has got its ups and downs, its got its own pressure but they always mentioned, ‘you know you are the first black African to play cricket for South Africa’ and I always remind myself that no, I’m not. We had Herschelle Gibbs, Paul Adams who came before me. So how come I am the first African to play in the South Africa team? I was always, I would say, hiding behind them even though I know I am actually the first African to represent the country. The pressure, I always threw it to them.
Without a doubt, it has made an impact to a lot of people without me understanding how much it has done. There is always a massive pressure with us as black cricketers because the sport that we’re playing, it is the only sport where you are being looked at all of the time. It is not like football where every single kid is actually playing it.
Cricket and rugby are harder sports to penetrate into as we all know they are white-dominated sports. For us, being able to maintain that and stay as long as we can, it was a lot of pressure because we wanted to break through the barrier that said that the black cricketers are not good enough. We had to stand up for ourselves and show them that a sport is a sport, it doesn’t matter what colour you are, if you are good enough to represent the country.
Ntini on advice from Reverend Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela…
I remember meeting Rev Desmond Tutu and he actually called me aside and said, ‘never underestimate the value of you as a human being’ and then he said ‘never think that everybody knows you, meeting someone you must always say your name as well.’ From my point of view, that levelled me, if I meet you, I will give you time because I believe that 10 seconds could change the thoughts of a lot of people as they are walking past.
In 2003, we were in Cape Town and we were preparing for our first game against the West Indies. [Nelson Mandela] called me aside and he used a phrase in Xhosa and he says, ‘you are a star, go back home and the tell from where you come from that you are a star.’ Those words on their own actually cover the rest of my career. That I must go back home and tell the people who raised me that I am a star.
It gave me goosebumps coming from him. That he knew my name and what I am going through and being able to give me that wisdom, those words, they made me become a better person in life and try to walk on his path. Being able to give people time as he did.