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Adams and Ntini show the future

By Peter Roebuck

5 July 1998

A STRANGE sort of enjoyment could be derived from watching the cricket yesterday. The third Test has been a gruelling, growling match, played upon a dreadful pitch in front of a small crowd rendered witless by scowling skies and po-faced officials. And still it has been fun in a peculiar sort of way. Pain and pleasure are never far apart.

It was amusing to see senior citizens like Michael Atherton and Angus Fraser chucklingly taking their positions at long-off and long-on as their Welsh comrade trundled down his off-breaks, fun to see a Test man bowling with three men in the circle. Atherton, of course, previously announced that South Africa were the sort of team England ought to beat on their own patch.

Nevertheless it was a black sort of pleasure. Long before the prevailing mood had moved past hope, past downcast and into the happy realm beyond where despair and hilarity meet under the banner of hysteria. To try to find crumbs of comfort in the anoraked banality of days such as these, and with England in such trouble, is no easy task. As Mr Dylan put it recently: ``It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.'' England remain in need of a colossus.

Perhaps it is best to concentrate upon the visitors. Not upon their splendidly hostile opening bowlers from Bloemfontein and Zululand or a doughty opening batsman who cheerfully described his 210 as ``the worst Test innings I've played''. Rather upon the sight of Makhaya Ntini and Paul Adams joining forces to bowl for their country, a reminder of how far things have come and a nod to Frank Roro, Taliep Salie, Mohammed Yusuf and other fine players prevented from representing their country by forces beyond their control.

Adams tied up one end. It is curious that his action no longer provokes surprise. He had seemed to be trying to wrench a thorn from his foot for hurling the ball down the pitch. Now his head does not seem to bend quite so low and certainly he rises in time to see the effect of his efforts. Or perhaps it is merely a matter of familiarity. Adams is feisty and personable and he has needed to be. Not for him the prosaic ruminations usually emanating from the South African camp, whose every utterance appears to pass through the cleansing hands of Dr Ali Bacher, himself a mixture of zealous leader and spin doctor.

Upon being asked about his route to the top, Adams did not pay tribute to the usual suspects but instead said he had been mistakenly overlooked and had needed to take more wickets than anyone else to rise - not a matter of colour of course, as much as peculiarity.

Nor did Adams hesitate to play all manner of backhand sweeps and so forth against the Australians a year ago. After all, he is a young man with a head full of energy. He is impressive as himself, not as a coloured or as a representative or as a product, or as anything at all except a lively South African wrist spinner, itself a rarity. His record speaks for itself. He has matured considerably in the last 12 months notwithstanding his idiosyncrasies, his career is following the usual pattern of rise, fall, regroup and return. He has learned the importance of patience.

Ntini is a different case. Whereas Adams had a comfortable background - his father is a trawler captain - and rose under his own steam, Ntini is one of seven children born to a widowed maid. When he received his first cheque as a cricketer he bought a colour television for his family. Upon being given a mobile phone he handed it to his girlfriend so he could call her from Australia. The first pair of boots he ever owned were cricket boots given to him by his splendid coach upon his selection to play for Border's Under-15 team.

And yet it is not quite true to describe Ntini as a product of development schemes belatedly introduced among the dispossessed in the 1980s. After all, his father and uncle played the game to a respectable level, besides which cricket has a strong tradition among the communities in the south. He was not born into a cricketing vacuum.

Ntini has some admirable qualities. For a start he is splendidly athletic. As much was evident in Sydney last winter when team-mates entered him in a 400 metres race, staged during a break for luncheon. Given a 30-yard handicap against the professionals, Ntini promptly sprinted around the field in grand style, running out of puff only in the latter stages and still managing to win comfortably.

Most of the top fast bowlers have been swift runners, or else incredibly muscular.

Malcolm Marshall was notably fast, and he has been Ntini's mentor and coach. Here Ntini bounded to the crease and hurled the ball down with a pace to surprise reaching 89mph. Moreover he struck a telling length and most of the runs scored off him were edges. To widespread delight, he removed Atherton towards the end of a long spell. Among Ntini's colleagues on his two tours with South Africa Under-19s was Mark Boucher, another player of immense character whose improvement on this trip has been predictable and will no doubt continue in the future.

Ntini also has a stout heart. No captain has ever had to ask him twice to bowl. Nor is he unduly bothered about wind and other subtleties that waylay delicate types. After all, he is bowling for his country.

Ntini and Adams played their parts in a powerful, not to say overwhelming, performance from the visitors. South Africa have looked formidable throughout the opening three days of this Test. Their culture drives them on, demanding deeds and expelling excuses. Meanwhile England wear the clothes of welfare and self-celebration.

Whether or not Ntini was needed in this match is a moot point. South Africa must have been tempted to choose both spinners to add variety to their attack and strength to a tail whose weakness played its part in their canny progress. Not that spin has been effective hitherto. Nonetheless, South Africa have many matters to take into account in determining its course, not least the need to engage the entire population. Perhaps England can learn from this. After all, the game remains neglected, despite recent efforts in state schools and among various immigrant communities to recapture past interest.

The contributions of Ntini and Adams might well inspire their brothers at home. It might also give English cricket more than a little food for thought.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 05 Jul1998 - 10:15