Fitting farewell for Ntini

An iconic inspiration to millions of young Blacks in the country and beyond, Ntini went out in style, even if the score book might suggest otherwise. This wasn’t a day for victories and defeats, for runs scored and wickets taken. For the record, India bested South Africa by 21 runs, but that will stay only in the record books, not in the memories of a full house that enjoyed the thrills of cricket and the reverberations of music Western and Indian in the soccer cauldron that the Moses Mabhida stadium is.

Close to 50,000 fans thronged the venue, several arriving a good three hours before the scheduled start, to form the biggest crowd at a cricket match in Africa. It was a crowd of mixed ethnicity and support, but the one common thread that bound them together was their long-serving hero. Everything Ntini did drew warm, spontaneous applause. When he led the South Africans out into the middle, the cheers were approving. When he began his run-up to deliver his final ball in international cricket, the applause was respectful. When he went around the ground in a lap of honour on a golf buggy at the end of the game, the roars threatened to bring the roof down as he touched a chord in everyone present.

Honoured for his contributions to South African cricket, Ntini received the ultimate compliment from another champion. Sachin Tendulkar too was felicitated by Cricket South Africa for his record-breaking run in world cricket on an occasion designed to commemorate 150 years of Indian presence in South Africa, and he told the South African ace, “You are a great champion -- great bowler, great competitor. He never gave up till the last ball. Till the last ball, he didn't allow me to relax. Now I can. He is a great role model for everyone.”

As the crowd rose to cheer the man who gave them countless moments of joy and pride on the field, always with a smile, and who will remembered as much as an entertainer as a cricketer, the Indians huddled around Ntini. Men like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Murali Vijay and R Ashwin shared the dressing room with him at Chennai Super Kings, and it was no surprise that Dhoni engulfed him in a warm embrace. The spirit of camaraderie extended beyond the post-match presentation as both teams posed together with the Krish Mackerdhuj Trophy, for which India and South Africa will do battle henceforth in bilateral T20 showdowns.

The last word, fittingly, had to be Ntini’s before the song and dance began. “To each and everyone of you, thank you very much for all  the support, it’s been a lovely 12 years,” he said, his choking voice partly drowned by the screaming audience. “It was an honour to play cricket with Sachin. To all the South Africa boys, it has been great. I don't wanna take long, we want to party!” Life has always been one big party for Makhaya Ntini, so why should his farewell be any different?!

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