The importance of being Temba Bavuma

By James Gingell

It is the best piece of fielding I have seen. In the First Test of the Australia‒South Africa series in November 2016, David Warner dropped a defensive shot into the off side, and set off for a single. From cover point, Temba Bavuma sprinted ten yards to his left, stooped and cleanly picked up a bobbling ball in his right hand. That was the easy bit. Warner is one of the world’s quickest batsmen, so there wasn’t time for Bavuma to stand up straight for an overarm throw. Nor would an ordinary underarm generate enough speed. Instead, Bavuma improvised something in between. Using his momentum, he took off into a horizontal dive, flicked his legs above his head and, corkscrewing his body to generate force, side-armed a direct hit. It was a miracle of biological physics.

In his book Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace described exactly how I felt when watching and rewatching the Bavuma run-out.

“There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate, but televisable.”

In cricket, if anyone is profundity in motion, if anyone represents televisual power, it is Temba Bavuma. Despite a population that is 80% black, South Africa did not pick a black player until 1998, when Makhaya Ntini played against Sri Lanka at Cape Town. Aravinda da Silva gave the debutant a harsh welcome – flaying a succession of cuts and pulls to the boundary – before becoming the first of Ntini’s 390 wickets across 101 Tests.

Still, Ntini’s success has been the exception. Monde Zondeki, Mfuneko Ngam, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Thami Tsolekile followed him, but earned just 17 caps between them. Ntini left Test cricket in 2009 without, it seemed, leaving a legacy.

GettyImages-134648668.jpg
Makhaya Ntini, the South Africa fast bowler who took 390 wickets across 101 Tests, and a further 272 in 183 white ball matches. (Pic: Patrick Eagar, Popperfoto/Getty Images.)

It was five years before another black player was selected for South Africa, when Bavuma made his debut against West Indies. Kagiso Rabada was the next, in 2015. Rabada’s place in the side has never been in doubt. He was the star of the Under-19 World Cup-winning side in 2014, took a hat-trick on his ODI debut in 2015, equalled Ntini’s national record haul of 13 wickets in a single Test, against England at Centurion, in early 2016, and has generally earned rhapsodic praise since his introduction to international cricket.

Bavuma is different; there have always been questions. That Bavuma is the first black batsmen to be picked perhaps makes his case harder. There was no Ntini for him to follow, only a Kallis-sized hole to fill in the middle order. And plainly, he does not possess the singular talent of Rabada. He is a compact, kinetic batsman, but from 20 Tests, and 30 innings, he has an average of 31. It doesn’t help that his first-class average of 37 is lower than Rilee Rossouw’s 43, a white player who was a rival for national selection until he forsook international cricket for a Kolpak deal at Hampshire early in 2017.

Altogether, it has meant Bavuma has, more or less since his debut, borne an ugly tag. When a white player underperforms, it’s because they’re not very good. When a black player underperforms, it’s because they’re a “quota pick”.

Since September 2016, Cricket South Africa has stipulated the men’s team must – on average over a year – consist of at least six non-white players, of which two must be black. The pressure had come from above: in April that year, Fikile Mbalula, the former South African Sports Minister, had banned CSA from bidding for international events until such targets were imposed. The diktat has only intensified the scrutiny on Bavuma: he is the walking, breathing, batting embodiment of the policy of transformation.

It feels like there should be a better, gentler way of making the South African cricket team more representative of the stock from which it is drawn. And yet, there is not. While the government and the CSA have invested heavily in improving infrastructure, to inspire children to try cricket instead of football, they need black heroes in the national cricket team – right now. You can’t be what you can’t see. Bavuma knew this when he was first picked: “It’s not about me making my debut,” he said. “It’s about being a role model – an inspiration for other kids… black African kids.”

After South Africa’s readmission to Test cricket in 1992, Donald Woods wrote in Wisden:

“During the years of segregation young white South Africans idolised their cricketing heroes from Faulkner and Schwarz to the Pollocks and Richards, while young blacks in the country preferred to identify with Nicholls, Salie, Roro, Majola, Malamba, Ntikinca, Barnes, D’Oliveira, Bhamjee, Ntshekisaand Ebrahim – all black players as unknown to their white compatriots as they were to the cricket world at large. They may not have been national figures but they were local and regional heroes, especially in the Cape Province. All the time many whites liked to assume blacks were not interested in cricket. Meanwhile, the only white cricketers cheered on by black cricket fans were those playing against South Africa. When Neil Harvey played his epic match-winning innings of 151 not out for Australia against South Africa at Durban in 1950, every scoring stroke he made was cheered from the seating area reserved for blacks, not least by a young lawyer named Nelson Mandela.”

It’s possible that Bavuma could have been dropped during the series against England in January 2016. After the First Test at Durban, where he scored ten and nought, Bavuma had played six Tests and scored just one half-century. Kevin Pietersen certainly thought he should have been discarded, wondering “who that kid is who bats at six”. Yet he remained, and scored the first hundred by a black South African in a draw at Cape Town. Its power was hard to overstate.

“Despite concentrated efforts in the past 24 years, cricket has not been a sport of choice among the black population,” wrote Steven Brenkley in Wisden 2016. “Stars can change that; Rabada and Bavuma already have. At one hotel on the final morning of the series, the mostly black reception staff were excited about impending victory: ‘We’re gonna win today, we’re gonna win.’ That would not have happened even ten years ago.”

***

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