When Temba Bavuma was appointed captain of the South African cricket team in March, 2021, albeit in only the white-ball formats, it was a significant moment in sport. George Headley, the ‘Black Bradman’, was the first Black man to captain the West Indies in January, 1948, while Frank Worrell was the first to be handed that role on a permanent basis in 1960. Yet it took 61 more years for South Africa to break the barrier in cricket.
Worrell and Headley were excellent cricketers. Moreover, Worrell was a statesman of sorts for his impeccable behaviour, poise and elegance, living up to the immense scrutiny for a Black man appointed to an important role which until then was reserved only for whites. The race barriers in wider society aren’t as strong in the 21st century, but Bavuma, too, has a huge responsibility on his shoulders as the captain of his national team.
He was appointed as captain during difficult times. In the aftermath of the global anti-racism movement in 2020, South Africa, despite the abolition of Apartheid and steps taken by its government to emancipate people of colour, revealed that its transformation was far from complete, even in the hearts and minds of its people. Boeta Dippenaar and Pat Symcox disagreed with bowler Lungi Ngidi’s comments on the Black Lives Matter movement, while former bowler Makhaya Ntini revealed he was treated differently when he was a player. Former players, including Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher, underwent investigations to determine whether they practised any racism during their playing days. Both players were recently cleared of racism charges.
Former captain and administrator Ali Bacher, a man central to preserving the health of South African cricket through the 1980s and 1990s, recognises how important Bavuma is to South Africa. “He’s respected; he’s a gutsy cricketer. He’s as significant to South African cricket as Frank Worrell was to West Indies. Equally important,” Bacher tells Sportstar.
Bacher recalls what coach Geoffrey Toyana said about Bavuma when the batsman played under him in the Gauteng team. “Toyana’s father, in the 1980s, was one of the people who helped me to start Black cricket programmes in townships. Geoffrey became coach of Gauteng cricket. And I ask him one day about this new young Black cricketer, and all he said to me was, ‘I’ve coached scores and scores of top provincial cricketers, I’ve never known a provincial cricketer who wanted to practice every day of his life.’ He was determined; he worked hard, and he wanted to aspire to the top.”
In January, 2016, he became the first Black South African to score a Test century.
“His most memorable innings – he scored a hundred against England in Cape Town. He must be the shortest international batter I’ve ever seen. They bounced him, then they bounced him. And you know what? He got on his toes and pulled them over midwicket, through midwicket for four. And he got a memorable hundred. So you could see then that he was a young cricketer with immense possibilities,” Bacher says.
Yet, inspired as he seems to be, his performances with the bat haven’t quite reached the level of greatness. A member of the national team in all three formats, Bavuma, now 32, is yet to add to that lone Test century and averages 34.36 in 51 Tests. His stats are better in other formats but his batting performances have marginally dipped as captain (an average of 30 in T20Is and ODIs combined).
Moreover, there is not much to write home about as captain. His team suffered defeats by Bangladesh (a 2-1 series loss) and Ireland under his reign. The 3-0 win over India in January this year is a feather in his cap but there is not much else to savour. He was widely appreciated for his maturity and composure as he handled the controversy during the T20 World Cup over Quinton de Kock’s refusal to take the knee. But in today’s times when results have become the sole currency to determine value, such considerations may not hold as much weight as they once did. South Africa failed to qualify for the semifinals, faltering in an ICC tournament yet again.
Bavuma’s unassuming nature and soft-spokenness is certainly noteworthy and appreciable. Even in the press conference at the Arun Jaitley here on Wednesday, he carried himself with dignity and made carefully weighed statements.
But his legacy will in the final analysis be determined not so much by these traits, or the sporadic wins by his team, or even by his sporadic knocks with the bat. Although his team, full of stars who shone through in the IPL, nearly shocked the cocky Indians in the five-match T20I series, it matters little in the overall scheme of things. Bavuma will be judged instead by his ability or inability to inspire his men, or to play a captain’s knock when needed the most. Most of all, he will be judged by whether the team under him achieves greatness, perhaps ending the jinx by winning an ICC tournament for the first time later this year or in 2023, a quest that remains unfulfilled despite repeated attempts by white captains. And his own efforts with the bat will be crucial to that.
He deserves to be applauded for what he has achieved so far. But he is still full of potential and possibilities. If he can carve out an unforgettable phase for his national team, as Worrell did during West Indies’ tour of Australia in 1960-61, it will add lustre to the already glorious chapter in cricket in the Rainbow nation.