Thando Ntini unfazed by the weight of expectations

His surname and his father’s accomplishments put the 20-year-old under more scrutiny than his peers. But that doesn’t bother the talented bowler who has announced his name in style.

Thando Ntini seems unfazed for someone who’s about to embark on a pivotal chapter in his important cricketing life, having spent the most part of lockdown at home in East London with little reason to leave the house.

“There’s been some family time, some resting time. Some time to self-reflect, gym and study. There’s a lot of free time that I haven’t really had in a couple of years,” said Ntini of his time in lockdown before cricket was given the green light to resume at alert level three. 

“On the mental side I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I’ve had a lot of chats with my psychologist to try not to fall into the trap of being bogged down by not playing and not being around friends. I’ve been proactive when it comes to stuff like that.”

If you recognise the surname you may understand why his current mode is surprising. His father, Makhaya, is a recipient of the Order of Ikhamanga, thanks to a cricketing career that saw him claim 390 Test wickets and 265 one-day internationals scalps. In 1999, Makhaya was convicted of rape but the conviction was overturned on appeal.  

The pair spent a great deal of time together during the Covid-19 enforced lockdown. “The first couple of weeks was a struggle, but as I started to find things to do, I started to accept the situation as it is, and just make the best of it. We addressed that a bit. I’ve been more enthusiastic and taken each day as it comes. It’s been really good,” says Thando. 

Thando was just three years old when Makhaya Ntini became the first South African bowler to take 10 wickets at Lord’s in 2003. He was six when Ntini deftly guided a single to third man during the Proteas’ epic 438 game at a pressure cooker Wanderers Stadium in 2006. These were seismic events in the country’s sporting history, and his father was at the centre of it all.

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It is only when the 20-year-old Ntini became an adult that he began to come to terms with what his father’s legacy means to the game. It may take him a while still to learn more, but it will be impossible for the young man to escape comparisons with his father the better he gets and the closer he moves to the Proteas badge. 

“I don’t feel pressure at all because if there’s no pressure at home I don’t see the need to put it on myself. The outside sources can say what they want. They can try to put unnecessary pressure on me, but if I don’t put pressure on myself, I feel I’m a lot freer in terms of expressing myself on and off the field. I can just be myself,” says Thando.

Making his own name 

Thando’s franchise debut in February for the Cape Cobras was the stuff of dreams. Ntini’s figures of 4 for 36 against the Warriors, while his father looked on in the commentary box, was the first test of many still to come.

He’s taken 20 wickets in seven first-class games with an average of 25.40 and an economy of 3.23. He also took 14 wickets in the Momentum One Day Cup. If nothing else, he is ticking all the right boxes at this stage in his career, having earned a national contract for Under-19 players last year. He was also nominated for Domestic Newcomer of the Year at the 2020 Cricket South Africa Awards.

With the Cape Cobras having finished bottom of both domestic competitions this past season, it seemed an appropriate time for the fast bowler to kick on his career and align himself to a different structure, in a Proteas-packed Titans squad.

“It was a collective decision I guess, with the family. It’s been on the cards for a while, and I’m just trying to make the best decision for my cricket and for my future. I spoke to a few mates, I spoke to my parents, but it was a decision for me, and what I feel is best for my future in the years to come,” Ntini says.

Ntini says there were many reasons for moving, but at the heart of it was his growth as a cricketer. “They’re going to challenge me physically, and as a person so just being part of the structure, playing at Centurion and being part of a winning mindset, and a winning environment and being around Proteas players all the time, the amount of growth is going to be immense. That’s why I took the decision that I did to move across.”

The Titans, under coach Mandla Mashimbyi, have finished second in the Four-Day Series and second last in the One Day Cup, but the franchise boasts a solid structure capable of churning out Proteas-standard players at regular intervals.

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“I’m looking forward to working with Mandla. I definitely think when I’m there I can pick up a couple of yards, get better, get stronger and then obviously learn from guys like Lungi Ngidi and Junior Dala. But I still work closely with my dad, so it’s just a bonus to be part of such a structure that can be able to accommodate fast bowlers.”

Young Ntini’s bowling style is different to his father’s. His run up is more languid and looser, more fluid when he’s feeling good. His approach to the game seems more structured and thoughtful. By comparison, older Ntini sprinted during his run up and was more muscular and powerful in bursts. His desire to win, and enthusiasm to spend the time in the field working for it, carried him through when he ran out of physical steam. He also never stopped talking to and encouraging his teammates in the field.

“He’s on my case all the time about my fitness. I can take him on definitely, but when it comes to weights, no chance. I get my work ethic from him. He just wants me to be the best person I can be on and off the field,” he says.

Holding his own against the big boys in Pretoria 

At home in East London, Ntini spent the time preparing for his big move up north. He appears to have inherited his father’s work ethic, which should serve him well at the Titans. 

“My dad is super fit. I remember every morning, before a game or before training he would go to gym, come back, get dressed and then leave again. I don’t know how he did it, but he still does it now as well. Just his drive and motivation and passion for what he did impressed me,” he says. “Cricket-wise I’ve been zoned out a bit. I was trying not to think about it too much. I’ve been working with my dad. I’ve been trying to be as productive as possible.

“He’s a father figure with loads of experience in the field of cricket so it’s a bonus on and off the field where he’s my dad and he can also be a coach as well. He just wants me to live life, to experience things, fail and learn and grow. Not to be too controlling and just let me experience things on my own, and figure things out. And when I do need advice and need help, I know that my family is there for me 24/7 so I can always lean back and forth with them at any time.”

Having schooled at Selborne College and then Wynberg Boys’ High, young Ntini has been given the best possible chance to challenge for greater honours in cricket, but there is a learning curve he is not prepared to avoid by being fast-tracked just because of this surname. He appears focused on a task, and that is to play cricket with freedom and fortitude.

“When I’m myself and just doing me, I find that through my cricket I perform a lot better. Playing cricket pressure-free is the best thing you can do. Obviously, there’s the pressure of the game but if I don’t put pressure on myself, I can pretty much do whatever I want and learn from doing that,” he says.

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“I set goals every six months, and I try to achieve those goals timeously. Obviously, my goal for this year was to try to be the best in franchise cricket, and I think I’ve ticked off that box by getting the Young Player of the Year Award at the Cobras, being the leading wicket taker in the One Day Cup and going under three in four-day cricket. And being part of the national academy again.”

The post-Covid cricket arena may look a lot different next season. The Mzansi Super League expands to include two more teams, and with a defending champs medal earned with the Paarl Rocks, there’s every chance that Ntini may seize more moments, and tick more boxes on the way up.

“The next goal is to try to make the SA ‘A’ side this year and get retained or drafted again in next season’s MSL,” he says.

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