Why Temba Bavuma’s second century matters, for himself and South Africa

Bavuma had become a walking metaphor for his country’s failures before change in coach and promotion to captain

By Reuben Odirichukwu
March 15, 2023, 4:21 p.m.

Temba Bavuma celebrates with his South Africa teammate Wiaan Mulder after ending his long wait for another Test hundred. Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

He got there with a lofted cover drive. There is no stroke in cricket that better captures the artistry and grace of a batter in full flow than a flashing scythe through the offside. But add in a bent back knee, an arched torso, a flourish of the hands and the delicious parabola of a ball careening over the infield and what you’ve got now is a statement.

Temba Bavuma has been making statements ever since he first held a cricket bat in Langa, an underdeveloped area of Cape Town that was solely reserved for black Africans under apartheid. But he rarely uses words. Those rarely leave his mouth in anything other than a mumbled tone as they coalesce into a collection of media-trained athlete-speak.

Instead, Bavuma has had to construct a narrative in the universal language of run-scoring. But his pages have been caveated ever since he edged England’s Steven Finn to deep third for four runs on 5 January 2016.

That was Bavuma’s first Test century. It was a streaky stroke in an otherwise superb knock at Newlands and was a landmark moment for a nation perpetually gripped by the horrors of its past.

It wasn’t just Bavuma’s skin colour that mattered. More importantly, he is a batter, still the only black African batter with a Test century for South Africa. His craft relies on more than physical gifts and fast-twitch muscle fibres. That high elbow on defence, that understanding of length, those wrists and nimble feet, all of that is the product of meticulous development on the manicured training pitches of an elite talent factory. In South African cricket those are predominantly expensive high schools that are disproportionately filled with white students. Bavuma’s milestone was a sign that the crimes of the past generation were perhaps fading a little further in the rearview mirror.

Of course this was just a yarn we told ourselves. Nelson Mandela once said that sport has the power to change the world. Three Rugby World Cup wins have done little to bring about the “rainbowism” he promised but that truth hasn’t stopped us from tethering our self-worth as a country to our athletes. And as Bavuma raised his bat in a stadium where his father would have once been barred, we added a new line to our checkered tale.

Then we waited for another hundred that never came: 2016 became 2017 which became 2018 and still we waited. He scored 74 in Hobart, 89 in Dunedin and 71 against Bangladesh in Potchefstroom. In March 2018 he faced an Australia side reeling from the sandpaper-gate fiasco and struck an unbeaten 95 before Morne Morkel edged Pat Cummins to second slip. The South African fast bowler walked off in wide-eyed disbelief. What if that was Bavuma’s last chance to ton up again?

So we waited some more and as we did so the team around Bavuma morphed from good to mediocre. Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and later Quinton de Kock all retired from Test cricket. Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar both lost their sheen at the top of the order. Bavuma endured, but fluency gave way to stoicism and though his average remained healthy – 46.08 in the last three years – a hundred eluded him.

And why should that have mattered? It’s only an evolutionary coincidence that we have 10 fingers and therefore place great value in the decimal system. If we had two fewer digits batters would be whipping off their helmets and leaping for joy upon reaching 64. Is there really any difference between scoring 99 and 100 runs? Anyone who’s crossed that threshold, at any level, will know that there is.

It’s hard to know when it happened but Bavuma had become a walking metaphor by the time he was dropped from the Test team in January 2020. He had become a symbol not only for the sport in the country but for the country itself. Is this really the best we had to show for more than two decades of democracy? Is this the black excellence that the ANC promised? Unfairly, he was seen by many as yet another example of a greater malaise that had infiltrated all aspects of society. No one blamed Bavuma for the rolling blackouts and the crumbling state-owned enterprises, but somehow he became part of the same conversation.

And yet he endured. Think whatever you want about the player but there can be no doubting the immense spirit of the man. No other cricketer in the world, including the Indian stars who have two billion eyes on them at every turn, has had to carry what Bavuma shoulders every time he takes guard. Every ball he faces is an act of courage. Every attacking shot holds more jeopardy than it would if he was born in a different time or place. No one questions the validity of Brexit or the Conservative government’s immigration policies when Zak Crawley nicks off.

Bavuma was back in the team soon enough. Partly because of domestic runs but also because there was no one else, black or white, who obstructed his return. And so we continued to wait: 2020 became 2021 which became 2022. He scored 61 in Rawalpindi, 93 against Bangladesh in Durban and 65 in Melbourne. Maybe he’d never get there again. Maybe it didn’t matter. That’s what we started to tell ourselves.

A change in head coach saw him appointed Test captain and he proceeded to bag a pair against West Indies in his first game in charge. He shrugged it off, speaking in monotone athlete-speak as he promised to do better. Then, with his team in trouble in their second innings of the second Test, he let his bat do the talking. High elbow on defence, nimble feet, the off flourish of the hands. He cut behind square to get into the 90s. He was gifted five overthrows to take him within a boundary of the promised land. And when Alzarri Joseph overpitched and offered width, Bavuma arched his torso, bent his back knee and got there with a lofted cover drive.

In all, 88 innings had passed between his first and second centuries. Only New Zealand’s Adam Parore took longer, with 92 at-bats. It didn’t matter. When a story is this good, it’s worth the wait.

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