If you really want to get up Makhaya Ntini's nose, try talking to him about being a role model for his country's budding young athletes. South Africa's first black cricketer took time out to speak with the Herald on Sunday this week as his side trained under the shadow of Table Mountain, a fitting backdrop for a man who's recently assumed mountainous proportions in his own right.
Now regarded, according to nationwide polls, as South Africa's most popular sportsman, Ntini is also the most recognisable, and the faces of the autograph hunters that mob him at every turn bear testament to the boundaries he's crossed.
Not only is he black South Africa's favourite son, he is also white South Africa's pin-up boy. His picture adorns bedrooms throughout the country and his signature can be found on just about anything with a flat surface. People literally stop in the street when he walks by. Once spurned by some as a 'token' selection, Ntini's ascent has continued so steadily that he's now the unmistakable pack leader when it comes to the South African bowling - particularly with his feared bouncer which has bruised many a big name.
He destroyed New Zealand last week with his second consecutive bag of 10 wickets for a match, in the process remaining the world's leading wicket-taker for the year with 29. Before the start of the second test he'd not only taken 259 wickets in 65 outings, but had also become the first South African to claim four 10-wicket hauls. He lies second only to Muttiah Muralitharan on the ICC bowler rankings.
The irrepressible 28-year-old is the brightest star of the United Cricket Board's development programmes in the townships; a nugget of gold that hints of a vast underlying seam, a man whose mere presence has inspired thousands. Yet, does he feel a need to set an example for young black African sportsmen and women?
"Not really," said Ntini. "The moment you put that kind of thought in your head, that you're some sort of great role model for everyone else, you risk running off the tracks and making mistakes.
"To me, the idea of trying to be a role model is quite false. It sounds like you have to try to be all things to all people. You can't do that without messing up. The key, I think, is to just remain true to yourself. To do what you've been picked for, to keep your mind on the job and to be the very best that you possibly can."
Now one of the top earners in a South African team that's becoming more multiracial by the year, Ntini can expect to earn in the vicinity of $400,000 a year for his services, while driving a $50,000 sponsored vehicle. That's a long way from growing up in the Eastern Cape township of Mdingi, herding cattle in bare feet, eating out of the same bowl with his six siblings - all of whom slept in the one earthen-floored room.
Ntini heads back there whenever he can to chew the fat with family and friends but said even that almost surreal experience doesn't make him feel like he's got a greater role to play in the scheme of things.
"I just don't accept the responsibility of being a role model for black or coloured people," he said. "I accept the challenge of playing cricket for South Africa. If I can keep my mind on that, I don't think anything else should matter. I appreciate that people might admire what I'm doing but trying to be a role model for them isn't what I signed up for. It's a huge responsibility to buy into, and I just don't accept it.
"I accept the responsibility for being a role model for my son but not for everyone else's sons."
There was no electricity, no TV, and the family made wick-lamps for lighting when Ntini grew up in Mdingi. He was born into a world of institutionalised apartheid in 1977, when hardly anyone in his township had heard of cricket, let alone seen it. They spoke only Xhosa, not Afrikaans or English, the accent heavily slanted towards survival and family support.
As hot as Mdingi often gets, it also becomes bone-jarringly cold, and a 10-year-old Ntini learned to cope with the discomfort by keeping close to the cows as he worked, quickly standing in their freshly produced dung for temporary relief from the chill. He remembers shooing cattle along one day in the summer of 1990-91 when he passed a ground where the UCB was staging a development clinic. Out of curiosity he popped over to see what was going on. It was the moment that a star was born.
"I like going back to Mdingi," he said. "It's where I was born and I make sure that I go home whenever I can.
"We sit down and drink a type of African beer and talk up a storm about the old days, and also about horse racing. It's great to see everyone laughing and having fun. "
Although things were looking bright when he made his test debut against Sri Lanka in 1998, his life was turned upside-down the following year when he was initially convicted of rape and then acquitted on appeal, a sequence of events that not only sidelined him for most of the season, but also forced him out of South Africa's World Cup squad.
Seven years later and he's viewed as one of South African sport's greatest pioneers, the man who helped prove that black and coloureds could do anything that whites could, including excelling at the most Anglicised game on the planet. That's why many say, whether he likes it or not, that he will always be a role model.By Richard Boock Email Richard