Makhaya set free from “cage”

A young man took a swig of his whisky and soda and bounced into the air yelling out the words to Bryan Adams’ “Summer of 69” alongside his mate as the duo played very good air-guitar.

It was 11.00pm in a bar called ‘dV8’ (clever name) in downtown Delhi and the Champions Trophy match between England and the West Indies had finished on the big screen about half an hour earlier.

Outside the bar, literally right outside the guard-attended door, three children lay close together on a piece of cardboard, huddling to keep warm on an unusually cool evening. The pavement either side of them was, naturally, inhabited by thousands more street dwellers. A double scotch and soda cost 450 rupees (US$9), enough to keep a family of six in basic food for a month.

Every country has its rich and poor, and the gap between them is widening all the time, but only in India can you experience the two extremes by doing nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other.

We are in Delhi for just two days, en route from the leafy and undeniably charming Mohali, a suburb of Chandigarh. When South Africa first visited the city in November 1993 during the six-nation Hero Cup, it was a concrete jungle with a lot of dust. But a concerted effort over the last decade to plant trees, shrubs and hedgerows and has completely transformed the feel of the city. This time it was clean, thriving and vibrant – and being the capital of the Punjab, the magnificently regal sight of the many brightly coloured Sikh turbans and flowing beards turned the most simple walk down the street into a cultural experience.

The day before the game against Pakistan Makhaya Ntini bowled about six or seven balls in the nets at Graeme Smith. He looked lethargic and the ball came out of his hand with the impact of a naartjie. Instead of throwing the ball back to his star bowler, the captain carried it back looking understandably concerned. A few minutes later Ntini left the nets with assistant (and bowling) coach, Vinnie Barnes. They walked to the middle of the stadium and marked out his run-up on the side of the square.

“Sometimes the body position just doesn’t feel right, perhaps you’re bending your front leg, or something else is wrong. I need to feel the whole ground, the stadium, I need to be free,” Ntini explained later. “When you’re bowling in the nets you are bowling in a cage and I don’t like being in a cage. In an open space I can find my rhythm far more easily,” Ntini said.

Before Ntini’s record haul of 13-132 in Trinidad 18 months ago, Makhaya and Vinnie had gone through a very similar session.
“Makhaya needs to ‘feel’, he needs to visualise himself bowling at his best. Sometimes he needs to close his eyes and relax, to enjoy his bowling. Of course, there are technical things, mostly to do with his run-up, but a lot of it is also mental,” Barnes said.

“The thing I enjoy most about Vinnie is that he knows what’s going on and he knows me and my action and my weaknesses. I don’t like people coming to me and saying ‘what’s wrong?’ if they don’t know what’s going on or how to correct it. But if Vinnie asks me what feels wrong then I can tell him and he knows what we need to do,” Ntini said.

The morning after his match-winning spell of 5-21 against Pakistan, Makhaya woke up very late. It takes a long time to come ‘down’ from a ‘high’ like that. He wore a beanie on his head, a golf shirt, untucked, and a pair of those disposable white slippers that you get in five-star hotels. (But certainly not in my hotels.) If you’d asked him to cover his eyes and say what he was wearing, he wouldn’t have had a clue. But he was smiling and he was talking happily.

“I look up to Polly, especially his reading of the wicket and how it is going to play. He takes a lot of wickets but if he isn’t taking wickets then he’s always containing runs which gives me a lot of opportunities to attack and take wickets from the other end. But having him beside me, or bowling from the other end, is one the greatest things on the field,” Ntini said.

And what about off the field?

“Off the field, he gives me Jungle Oats. He travels with packets of two-minute Jungle Oats and every morning, especially if we are playing, he makes sure I have my bowl of Jungle Oats! He’s trying to make sure I have my strength. It’s great having a character like that around.”

What did Makhaya and Shaun say when South Africa were 42-5 against Pakistan?

“We didn’t say anything because the coach was jumping around being nervous. He’s always the first one to get nervous.”

What about between innings, when South Africa had to defend 213. What did he say to Shaun, or vice-versa? “Me and Shaun knew we could do it because it was a good score and we knew the ball would do even more under lights. We didn’t need to say anything to each other,” Ntini said.

“The only person who spoke to me was Loots Bosman. He said ‘Makhaya, we’re leaving everything up to you. If you don’t do well, we’re going home. But if you do well, we’re staying.’

“That was kind of an inspiration because he’s a new guy in the team and for us to make him comfortable enough to say those things made me very happy. I don’t like to use this word, because it’s not so important any more, but I have to: he’s a black player and for him to see how we do things, to feel a part of it, is very special. I have told him, when he gets a bat in his hand he gets an opportunity to express himself, to be himself and to enjoy the company of eleven players on the field. And that’s exactly what he has been doing,” Ntini said.

The team are staying in a lovely hotel in Delhi. So lovely, in fact, that the price of a single room, for a single night, would be enough to keep that family of six I mentioned earlier in basic food for just over four years. I am staying in an informal Guest House run by a wonderfully eccentric and delightful Indian man called ‘Mini’ who has retired from his quarrying business and now distributes blankets and groundsheets to the street dwellers to help them get through the Delhi winters during which temperatures can drop to just two or three degrees Celcius.

On the first night, we sat down on his patio to have a beer and some peanuts. I arrived with a bottle of some local brew which I had just purchased in a nearby bottle store. It was called ‘Cannon’. I poured myself a glass and was about to salute his generous hospitality when he leapt up from his chair, grabbed my glass and bottle and poured them into a pot plant.

“Good god, man! What are you doing with that? That stuff is 80 per cent alcohol…it’s called Cannon because it’ll blow your bloody head off!”

With that he summoned Vinod, his loyal house boy, to fetch a couple of bottles of something more palatable and less dangerous.

Another day, another city. Next stop Jaipur. The ‘Pink City.’ West Indies in the semi-final.

Go Makhaya.

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