(Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
By Neil Manthorp
Temba Bavuma has the cricketing world at his feet. Well, the South African cricket world, anyway. He reached 1,000 runs in his 35th innings at the Oval at an average of a shade under 32. He is the first to tell you it’s not good enough for an international batsman. What he won’t tell you, because he almost certainly doesn’t know, is that in 12 of those innings he has walked to the crease with his side having less than 100 runs on the board.
On half of those occasions, he has passed 50 and has scored almost 500 runs at an average in the mid 40s. A top-order collapse, it seems, brings out the best in him. He made critical contributions in dire circumstances in the series victories against Australia and New Zealand in November and March, but only grudgingly admitted that it was “nice to have contributed to the team winning”.
On another half dozen occasions he has fallen cheaply in attempting to accelerate following a solid top-order platform. Not for him the pursuit of red numbers even though, like all batsmen at the start of their careers, he knows the importance of not outs in producing the average which satisfies selectors.
“Top-six batsmen need to score hundreds, it’s as simple as that. We are not doing our job if we are not scoring hundreds.” It is disarmingly honest and leaves many with an inclination to defend his record (as in the previous two paragraphs). Scoring hundreds at number six is not the straightforward operation it can be at number three, four or five. He has frequently been confronted by the second new ball and often been forced to bat with the tail.
Bavuma has been one of the few highlights for the Proteas during the Test series so, mercifully, there has been no talk of ‘merit’ or quotas concerning his selection. But he is nobody’s fool and is acutely aware that, to maintain the transformation requirement of a minimum of two black Africans in the starting XI, the team cannot afford for him (or Kagiso Rabada) to lose form. At this stage, there are no replacements ready to step into the Test XI.
If and when he does start adding to the glorious century he scored against England at Newlands a year and a half ago, Bavuma’s progression into the middle-order and, in all probability, the captaincy would seem almost pre-ordained. There are already politicians speaking that way. He waves the speculation away with disdain, refusing even to comment. All that matters to him for the moment are those hundreds.
Well, not quite all. He is passionate about the transformation cricket can make to whole communities, not just talented individuals, and recently moved from Johannesburg back to his childhood roots in the township of Langa, 15 or so kilometres outside Cape Town. He launched the Temba Bavuma Foundation a little over a year ago with the intention of “empowering young people” rather than to produce cricketers. If they happen to coincide, that would be a happy accident.
He and Rabada speak often about their importance as role models for future generations. He admits he can sometimes become a little over-philosophical, but says: “It’s not about us as individuals or cricketers, it’s about the future generations who are yet to come. We are paving the way for them. If they see me on the big stage, and know where I have come from, maybe they will be inspired to believe they can do it, too.”
Nobody has worked harder at being a success on that stage than him. He does extra time in the nets and frequently spends as long as 90 minutes after regular training practising his fielding drills. Like Rabada, he enjoyed the privilege of a private school education in Jo’burg where his journalist father had found work, but is now back where he believes he belongs. At least, half of him is. The other half will only believe he belongs in the Test XI when he’s scoring those damn hundreds.