South African limited-overs captain Temba Bavuma spent much of the recent T20 World Cup answering questions, some of them weightier than what he faced out in the middle. It has clearly become more complex to captain South Africa in the past year or so.
“I’ve got a far greater appreciation for anyone who has played at a World Cup, because the experience was definitely unique,” he said. “The attention is definitely a lot more intense, and the pressure within each game is a lot more significant as compared to a bilateral series.”
Bavuma explained just how daunting it was going into the first game against Australia, and how small margins throughout the tournament ultimately came back to haunt a team that has made strides on and off the field. The cricketing world saw the headlines around Quinton de Kock’s initial refusal to take the knee, but they didn’t tell the full story of where the team is on social issues.
“We had some really good conversations before the tournament, on issues that are in front of us. Often they are swept under the carpet, but it is important to know where we’re at as a team,” he said. “Wherever we come from, whatever our background, we have been brought together by this game. Some of us are good at bowling. Some are good at batting. And that has brought us here, to do that for our country. It’s important to remember the why, in the midst of everything that happens. We are here for the honour of playing for our country.”
He reiterated that the South African cricket team is united and fully aware of their responsibilities. “Of course, we discussed that challenges will come, but we must always know where we stand with each other as a team. So when the issue around Quinny came up, we knew where he was coming from, and I have never been a teammate who feels it is right to throw someone under the bus.”
Bavuma was commended for the manner in which he dealt with a trying week while the Proteas attempted to keep their tournament dream alive. “When we said there would be challenges, I didn’t think what happened was around the corner. But in those instances, I think it is very important to stick to your values and your truth. We all react differently, but there are a lot of great leaders in that team. I thought we handled a tough situation as a team, and it brought us even closer together.”
Amid the chaos, Bavuma had the presence of mind to keep Test captain Dean Elgar in the loop and make sure he was on the same page. “It’s about respect. I’ve never looked at the limited-overs team as my team. Trust me, I love captaining. I always have. I love the challenge, but I also enjoy getting to know different players, what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them.
“Even though what happened was in a white-ball tournament, I thought it was important to let Dean know where we were because he is as much a part of South African cricket as I am, as every player is.”
When asked just how much fun it is being a South African cricketer in the current environment, Bavuma’s response was emphatic. “You can never overlook how much we all love this game, and our country. Yes, there is pressure to perform, but that actually is fun. You play to test yourself, to try and win things as a team, for your country. Being on the edge is an incredible honour, and a lot of fun. That’s why we play.”
Bavuma is already eyeing the next T20 World Cup in Australia. “We got really close [this time] and played some good cricket. I was proud of the way the guys fought, and for adapting to tough conditions. That wicket against Bangladesh was very tricky, so it was hard to score as quickly as we needed to. It was just one of those things.”
The format meant South Africa played must-win cricket for the whole tournament, constantly with an eye on their net run rate. The margins were small, but he said the team answered some questions about themselves and will be stronger for the 2022 World Cup.
“If you look at our squad, I would say our bowling attack is world class. You can stack those guys up against any attack in the world.” But he admitted that “batting wise, we are still at least 10% short of where we need to be”.
Taking on India
There were, however, glimpses of the beast that lies in the South African batting belly. Rassie van der Dussen and Aiden Markram were sensational against England, while David Miller remains capable of finishing like a freight train.
“I honestly believed he would get us home against Sri Lanka. We took it really deep, but we always knew that their pace bowlers would have to come back and bowl a few overs. That gave us belief.”
He also had a word for Kagiso Rabada with bat in hand. “The hardest thing in the world is trying to convince him that he needs to bat more at practice. He always says he will be fine in matches, and he’s shown some signs, like that crucial six he hit in the Sri Lanka chase.”
But, Bavuma explained, Rabada is consumed with retaking his spot as the No. 1 bowler in the world. “He was up there for a while and he is highly competitive. Maybe the most competitive guy in the team. So he is a man on a mission, and that can only be a good thing for South African cricket.”
Next on the horizon is the series against an Indian team desperate to win a Test series in South Africa for the first time. They got close in 2018, and Bavuma expects an almighty scrap come Boxing Day.
“The India series is huge for us. For those of us who have gone over there the last two times, we know how much it hurts to be dominated like that.”
Bavuma refuses to hide behind the changes in personnel within the Test team and around South African cricket in general. “We can’t always be a team in transition. It is up to senior players to step up, and I include myself in that, as vice-captain. The loss in 2019 is still fresh in the memory,” he said about the whitewash in India. “That really hurt and we must use it as motivation. Use whatever, actually. India want to win and they have quality players. It’s up to us to respond.”
And while Bavuma said he felt a new sense of international respect as a result of his diplomacy during the T20 World Cup, he understands that his primary role is to make runs. “That’s what I want to do. I want to go out there and make more contributions that help the team. That’s my job.”
Virat Kohli and his Indian team have come to South Africa and detected weakness. In 2018, the brilliance of AB de Villiers was decisive. Kohli and his varied attack will know that things have changed, and they will be itching to build on the heroics of their Australian trip. As South Africa did in the late 2000s and into the 2010s, India want to be known as a team that travels and challenges.
And so, for 2021 and beyond, there is a chance for new names to go down in the rich history of the Freedom Series, which India and their hosts compete for in Test series. There is significance in this particular series too, as 30 years ago India welcomed South Africa back into the international fold.
For three decades, they have been the best of allies through their shared history of a collective freedom secured through non-violence. Over three Test matches in December and January, they will be the sincerest of enemies.