We revisit our cover feature from the latest SA Cricket magazine, as Temba Bavuma chats about the upcoming series.
Temba Bavuma has cemented his place in the Proteas middle-order following a series of spirited performances against India and England. During that challenging and largely unsuccessful period for the Test team, Bavuma scored 304 runs at an average of 43.42. On more than one occasion, the diminutive yet plucky batsman kept his head when the more experienced players around him were losing theirs.
‘Small man with a big heart,’ barked the headline on ESPNcricinfo after Bavuma’s determined efforts on a dust bowl in Delhi. Two matches into the series against England, Bavuma became the first black African to score a century for South Africa. The local media as well as the English press declared it a monumental milestone for South African cricket. At the same time, many marked it as the beginning of what could be an outstanding career.
‘Bavuma, as the first black African to score a century for South Africa, is massively symbolic,’ said Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s veteran cricket correspondent. ‘In only his seventh Test match, Bavuma played superbly well and proved he is worthy as a Test batsman regardless of his skin colour.’
Several months on, SA Cricket magazine caught up with Bavuma and asked him for his take on events. What did that century mean to him? What did the innings that yielded fewer runs but were just as important in the context of specific contests say about the 26-year-old’s mental fortitude? Did he ‘arrive’ for South Africa this past season, and does he feel more confident about his place in the team as the Proteas prepare for the next set of challenges against New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka?
Bavuma’s first response to the barrage of questions is unexpected. He laughs off the suggestion he has already enjoyed his defining moment on the international stage. He then proceeds to take up the story. What transpired at Newlands on 5 January 2016 was shaped by his early days in the township of Langa. A poor start to his Test career also forced him to revise his physical and mental approach, and become a stronger player.
‘My childhood really shaped me into the man I am today,’ Bavuma says. ‘I remember the endless hours my friends and I would spend playing cricket on the streets of Langa. It wasn’t always friendly. It was competitive. You had to be mentally strong to prosper. Obviously I wasn’t the biggest kid, so I had to fight for every inch. I had to be mentally strong. That was the only way I was going to make up for a lack of size or whatever else. If I think about it, that has become one of my defining characteristics and made me the player I am today.
‘There was a big response in my community after I scored that century against England,’ Bavuma continues. ‘There’s a strong sports culture in Langa, and they are always quick to celebrate one of their own. My success was their success. As I said, the environment I grew up in made me the player I am today. I attribute who I am to Langa. It was great to give the community some pleasure.’
Despite Bavuma’s breathtaking counterattack on day four at Newlands, the second Test ended in a draw. The Proteas went on to lose the series 2-1 and relinquish their No 1 ranking in the five-day format.
There were, however, some positives to be taken out of a largely disappointing season. Two of the team’s youngsters, namely Bavuma and fast bowler Kagiso Rabada, proved they belong at the elite level. Bavuma chipped in with 23 in the third Test against England, and then scored 35 and 78 not out in the fourth and final game of the series.
‘I feel that I held my head high in that series,’ he says. ‘What you need to understand is that a year before that England series, I was in a very different space. I struggled in my first series against West Indies [with a score of 10 in Port Elizabeth and 15 in Cape Town]. I was doubting my ability at the highest level. So to come through that England series with some runs was a big boost for my confidence.
‘The West Indies series was an eye-opener. It was my first experience of Test cricket. I didn’t realise that the jump from domestic to Test cricket would be so big. Fortunately, I had a chance to go back to my franchise and to the SA A side and work on my game. There were a few technical issues with my batting. The biggest thing that needed to improve, however, was my ability to handle the pressure.’
After putting in the hard work, Bavuma felt ready for a second stint with the Proteas in 2015. Opportunities were few and far between, though, in a rain-affected series in Bangladesh. Bavuma made his one and only chance count, top-scoring with 54 in the first Test in Chittagong.
Then Bavuma was thrown into the deep end in the fourth Test against India. The situation could not have been more demanding, as he was asked to open the batting on a pitch that was assisting India’s world-class spinners to an alarming degree. The Indian fielders were also doing their best to throw Bavuma off his game.
Subsequently, in the series against England in South Africa, Bavuma faced a similar verbal assault. If Bavuma was flustered, he never showed it. If anything, he appeared to grow more determined with every sledge.
That determination was also evident in his fielding. Throughout the series against England, many remarked on the 5’3 player’s dedication in what can be a dangerous position at short leg. Bavuma rarely flinched, and the sharp catch off Morné Morkel’s bowling to dismiss James Taylor in the third Test was one of the best in the series.
‘I’m not a bowler, but I like to be involved on the field. I want to make a positive contribution,’ he says. ‘It’s not all about batting for me. That close catching position is a role that usually falls to the youngest in the team. The older guys aren’t usually up for it. For me, I saw that as an opportunity.
‘Put aside the negativity and the fear associated with the position. Embrace that challenge. You have to be prepared to get hit when you’re fielding there, but then there is a chance you can make a positive contribution, whether it’s by saving runs or taking a catch.’
Perhaps India and England underestimated Bavuma. One thing is for certain, South Africa’s next set of opponents will not make the same mistake. The Proteas will begin the new Test season with two games against New Zealand in August. They will travel to Australia for three Tests in November, and then return to South Africa for a three-Test series against Sri Lanka.
‘It’s hard to be too pleased with oneself after the team’s losses against India and England,’ says Bavuma. ‘I’m happy with my own progress, but I don’t feel like I’ve made it. I don’t feel like I can carry myself that way. What I can do is keep pushing and striving to reach the next level. I want more success and I want to help my country win more Test matches.’
At this stage, Bavuma doesn’t appear to be part of South Africa’s limited-overs plans. He admits that he was disappointed to miss out on the recent triangular series involving Australia and West Indies in the Caribbean. On the other hand, this afforded him more time to prepare for the next Test series against New Zealand.
‘It will give me a chance to improve my conditioning and sharpen some of my skills,’ he says. ‘Hopefully I will also get some game time with the SA A side. I want my body and mind to be in good nick before the Test season starts.
‘New Zealand have a quality bowling attack. Players like Tim Southee and Trent Boult have been performing at the highest level for some time now. The conditions in South Africa usually suit the quick bowlers, so our batting will need to be prepared for that challenge.’
Further down the line, Bavuma is looking forward to what most cricketers regard as the ultimate test of mettle: a tour to Australia.
‘I have played for the SA A side in Australia before,’ he says. ‘Everything they say about that aggressive sporting environment is true. However, I feel those situations tend to bring the best out of me.
‘If I’m selected for that tour, it would be a great opportunity. Playing in front of those big crowds in Australia would be another new and challenging experience. It would increase the pressure no doubt. That is something I look forward to.’