July 13, 2024

The Complex Reality Of Bavuma’s World Cup Semi-final

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His footwork was a notable feature of his training and he appeared to be progressing well.

Temba Bavuma hasn't scored enough runs this World Cup to silence questions about his place. PICTURE: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

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South Africa’s captain hasn’t been in good form this tournament and is recovering from injury – but there’s more to it than just that, WRITES FIRDOSA MOONDA

Eish.

It’s a word used in South Africa to express various emotions from surprise to irritation and sometimes when we don’t know how to respond at all.

For example: Hailstones the size of cricket balls fell from the sky yesterday in Johannesburg. Eish, are you serious? Maybe it’s a sign that the men’s team will finally win a World Cup semi-final. Eish, I hope so. But what about Temba Bavuma? Eish. I don’t know.

We don’t, and we never will understand the intersectional complications of being the first black African to captain South Africa, the first black African batter to play for South Africa, and now to be experiencing what should be the most special week of his career as one of his most difficult. But we can try.

Let’s start with what we know. Bavuma has a hamstring strain, which hampered him in South Africa’s last league match against Afghanistan but is improving. After taking part in optional training on Monday, Bavuma did more fitness drills during Tuesday night practice, which included high-speed running, one-on-one fielding sessions with one-handed pick-ups and throws, and a net session.

His footwork was a notable feature of his training and he appeared to be progressing well. By Wednesday, he is expected to be declared fit with South Africa’s coach Rob Walter saying that “in an ideal world,” they would not want to wait until the morning of the match to confirm Bavuma’s participation.

In any other team (and there are examples at this World Cup, including Kane Williamson’s), if the injury has satisfactorily healed, Bavuma should take his place and lead South Africa in the semi-final against Australia. But this is not any other team. This is South Africa in a semi-final. And this is South Africa with all its history. So it isn’t as straightforward as that.

We also know that Bavuma has come under scrutiny for his failure to score big runs at this tournament – 145 at an average of 20 – and with a top score of 35 in a team where every other member of the top five has a century, that’s fair. But there is also an undertone that he is not good enough and that needs to be examined more closely.

FILE PHOTO: South Africa’s captain Temba Bavuma has been out of form and his lack of recovery cost Proteas against Australia. PICTURE: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

Before the World Cup, Bavuma was South Africa’s highest run-scorer in ODIs this year and averaged close to 80. He scored a series-winning hundred against England which played a significant part in securing South Africa’s automatic qualification to this tournament and two other centuries in his next five innings.

Currently, he has an ODI average of 47.25, which is more than respectable and what he is going through now might be nothing more than a lean run.

That’s certainly how the team management are looking at it; they continue to express their confidence that Bavuma’s best will soon be on display. “He hasn’t scored the runs he would have wanted to at the World Cup but every training he looks like he is close and every game he looks like he is close,” Walter said on Tuesday. “A good score is just around the corner for him.”

What complicates matters is the presence of Reeza Hendricks in the squad, and the conflation of an old issue, from last year’s T20 World Cup. Bavuma, who was then captain of the T20 side, went into that tournament having just recovered from an elbow injury which kept him out of an England and Ireland tour, where Hendricks reeled off four T20 fifties in a row. Bavuma then made two ducks and a score of 3 in a series in India in the lead-up to the T20 World Cup.

Despite all that, because Bavuma was captain, Hendricks was left on the bench at the T20 World Cup and Bavuma opened the batting without much success. He made one double-digit score in the first three games of the tournament and ESPNcricinfo understands he was going to be dropped for South Africa’s remaining games but a last-minute selection vote saw him keep his place in the side. In the end, Hendricks did not get a game.

This time there is absolutely no inside talk of benching Bavuma. “Temba hasn’t come into the conversation about being dropped because he is one of our best batters for the entire year,” Walter said.

But on the outside, though we are now in a different competition with a different format, the ghosts of Australia 2022 have begun haunting India. Bavuma made scores of 8, 35 and 16 before he was struck down with a stomach bug and had to miss South Africa’s matches against England and Bangladesh.

Hendricks replaced him in the XI and scored 85. On that evidence, it’s easy to think history is repeating itself but that’s too convenient a conclusion. The reality is more complex. Hendricks followed up that half-century with 12 against Bangladesh and his ODI record is not as good as his T20 one.

He averages a shade under 30 in ODIs and had only played three matches this year before the World Cup.

So, while we could wonder whether Hendricks should have been given the opportunity to play more (and he will after Quinton de Kock’s retirement), we cannot make a numbers-based argument that Bavuma will play ahead of him for anything other than cricketing reasons. That includes the fact that Bavuma is captain and it should.

Bavuma is a skilled leader and his decision-making has earned him praise from many outside observers. He sets attacking fields, makes timely bowling changes, and does not appear to panic when things are tense, either on or off the field.

FILE PHOTO: Siya Kolisi captained the Springboks to victory in the Rugby World Cup final last month. PICTURE: AFP/Getty Images

Crucially, he has led South Africa through some difficult and potentially divisive situations, including de Kock’s refusal to take a knee at the 2021 T20 World Cup, and he has always conducted himself with dignity and integrity while backing his teammates.

Bavuma understands the job he does is bigger than sport and that he is a representative and a role model for South Africans who have not had someone like him to look up to before. And in that, at least, he is not alone.

While Bavuma is South Africa’s first black African cricket captain, he is not the first black African to lead a national team in a sport historically dominated by white people. That is the domain of Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, who was appointed in 2018, called a quota captain and then spat in the face of that term by leading the national rugby side to two World Cups trophies. Kolisi is thus their most successful captain and a standard bearer of black excellence.

This year, with the rugby and cricket World Cups being played at the same time, the stories of Kolisi and Bavuma have dovetailed and the parallels between them are too obvious to ignore. Now, they even mirror each other in a particular detail.

Kolisi partially ruptured his ACL four months before the Rugby World Cup and for a period of time, his participation in the tournament was in doubt. He made what has been described as a miracle recovery, similar to Keshav Maharaj’s from a ruptured Achilles. Bavuma’s injury is nowhere near as serious, but the burden he carries is arguably much heavier than Kolisi’s.

Unlike Kolisi, Bavuma did not begin this campaign with a World Cup title to his name. Unlike Kolisi, Bavuma’s is not a game of substitutes.

That’s important because when Kolisi and Bavuma are judged side by side, it’s easy to forget that Kolisi plays a sport where, if things are not going according to plan or he has given all there is to give on a particular day, he can be taken off.

And that’s exactly what happened 51 minutes into the semi-final against England. Bavuma does not have the same luxury. But he does have the same, if not greater, expectations of both himself and his team.

Succeed, and Temba Bavuma will have the nation at his feet. But fail and it will be his fault before anyone else. Whether he is injured or not. Whether he plays or not. Whether he scores runs or not. Eish.

Firdose Moonda is a South African and women’s cricket correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

***This article first appeared on the ESPNcricinfo

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