Ntini was weakest link
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It is a bit like telling the bride at the height of the wedding banquet that you don’t like her dress. But sometimes honesty is important, and tough, unsentimental decisions have to be made.
GALLERY: First Test - Centurion
GALLERY: Tribute to Makhaya Ntini
It was clear to everyone but the most rigid devotees of the Mdingi Express - whom we have all willed on for many years - that Makhaya Ntini looked flat at his own party.
The Centurion Test match against England, dressed up as it rightly was in celebratory ribbons for the 100th Test of the great soldier, served its purpose honourably in that respect.
But now there is just the disarming scent of stale beer and crushed cashews on the carpet.
The veteran fast bowler took his bows and doffed his cap to the avalanche of salaams. But try as he did, he simply could not muster the mojo to excel simultaneously for the national cause.
And if he could not do so on such an illustrious stage as his centenary match, what price the 32-year-old markedly rectifying things just a few days further on at Kingsmead after five days of punishing Highveld sunshine?
Gallingly, the most experienced of the three South African fast bowlers by a mile at SuperSport Park was the primary omission as a “go to” factor by Graeme Smith.
Morne Morkel and Friedel de Wet – yes, even a rookie on debut – were more commonly the men the captain would turn to.
They were faster, and more penetrative, only adding to the mounting perception that the once-champion stallion has become, or is very rapidly en route to becoming, mere workhorse.
Ironically, of course, Ntini was asked to send down the critical final over of the drawn thriller on Sunday.
I thought it was a fairly clever move, the possibility of a fairytale finish to the game for Ntini, on so symbolic an occasion, only cranking up the pressure on England’s last batsman Graham Onions. (For the record, I felt Friedel de Wet, hero only minutes earlier, had probably burnt himself out a tad on excitement and adrenaline by then.)
It is history now that Ntini could not penetrate the No 11’s defence. Not that he was at fault in any major way -- that’s cricket.
But Ntini, in broadest terms, has run low on gas, a bit like Shaun Pollock finally did after so many overs for South Africa. You cannot wish away the ravages of time, and there was even painful evidence of decline, in Ntini’s case, in lead-up fare in the SuperSport Series.
“Makkie” seldom lets teams down. That’s never been his way – how infrequently he gets truly walloped out of the attack is almost as much a feature of his stellar Test career as his once-consistent tally of scalps.
But not being carted is not enough. Strike bowlers have to … well, strike. And Ntini has not had a “five-for” since a dead-rubber Test against the very same opponents at the Oval in August 2008. Before that, it was Pakistan in January 2007.
On flattish decks, and never having been the type of bowler with a big box of varietal tricks, his 135km/h fare is beginning to look all too impotent; mere plug-an-end fare.
Two intelligent former England seamers, writing in their respective British organs on Monday, share this suspicion.
Mike Selvey wrote in the Guardian: “Ntini was out-bowled by the debutant. It will be hard to drop De Wet. The (final) ball to Onions … could be the last of Ntini’s illustrious career.
“Ntini’s pace was down. The single shooter in the final over, from one of the cracks in the pitch, was slow enough for Onions to jab down on.”
And Derek Pringle in the Daily Telegraph: “De Wet applied pressure (in his lethal burst on Sunday) by bowling fast down the corridor of uncertainty.
“South Africa were under-strength here and will have both Steyn and Jacques Kallis back bowling properly at Durban: Ntini is possibly the one to make way.”
Ntini has courageously defied odds against him before. Maybe he can do so again, and certainly all kudos to him if so.
But this, it is inescapable to suspect, would be the right South African line-up for Kingsmead, all customers fully fit: Smith (capt), Prince, Amla, Kallis, De Villiers, Duminy, Boucher, Morkel, Harris, Steyn, De Wet.
Will they be brave enough to field it?
And will it get “clearance”?