From Langa to, perchance, Lord’s: Terroir maketh Test player

SA Cricket Magazine


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

THERE are worse places to grow up than Langa, places where money matters more than is healthy and reality is something other people have to put up with. In Langa, like it or not, reality is a friend of yours.

More than 50 000 people live this reality daily in 17 000 square kilometres that hug part of the N2 between Cape Town’s fair city and its airport. 

On some days, Langa burns with rage. Like it did on March 21, 1960 – which glows darkly in history as the date of the Sharpeville Massacre. People also marched in Langa that day, and they were also gunned down. Nine days later, somewhere between 30 000 and 50 000 of Langa’s citizens were back on the street demanding their rights.

Just as they were last July, when a protest over a lack of housing in the area flared into anger about general living conditions and made the leap to demands for justice over the Marikana shootings.

On other days, Langa sprawls sublimely like a lizard in the sun. In fact, that’s what the township’s name means in isiXhosa: sun. Albeit that it was originally named for Langalibalele, a renowned chief who knew the hardship of being imprisoned on Robben Island long before Nelson Mandela did.

One of Langa’s days of rage must have spawned Brenda Fassie, its most famous and most infamous child, and stoked her eternal internal flame to a bright blaze.

If that’s true, then on one of those other, magically calm days, when Langa’s embrace is warm and welcoming and the strength and seriousness of the place is seen, heard and felt on every corner and in every street, Temba Bavuma was given to South African cricket. Amen.

Argue with that and you’re arguing with what, not many kilometres away and for many more kilometres after that all around, well-groomed young people in the employ of wine estates are telling also well-groomed, more moneyed people who sample and buy their products: terroir maketh wine.

Terroir also maketh men and women; conjures them from the depths of its soil and soul. For this, and a lot else, Bavuma is thankful to Langa. Those who appreciate the Kallisesque solidity he brings to the crease should be, too.

“I try to stay as calm as I can, relaxed and focused and concentrating on what I need to do, whatever the situation,” Bavuma said.

And this, mind, from the Bavuma of more than two years ago – before he made his Test debut against West Indies at St George’s Park last December, and before he batted where others battled for his 54 in the first Test against Bangladesh in Chittagong in July.

That was Bavuma’s third Test innings. It followed the 10 he made on debut and the 15 he scored against the Windies at Newlands in January. His first effort was ended after 35 balls of patience by a snorter that grazed a glove. Next time out, he dragged the 41st delivery he faced onto his stumps.

Neither of those performances were sturdy enough to quiet questions over his selection – questions that always seem to come louder and faster when the player concerned is black.

But there was no quibbling about Bavuma’s next trip to the Test crease. South Africa’s top order of Dean Elgar, Stiaan van Zyl and Faf du Plessis had been cleared away by the time he took guard. Then Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Quinton de Kock disappeared in the space of four of Mustafizur Rahman’s deliveries.

Reduced to 173/6, South Africa were able to add 75 more runs before Bavuma reached further towards off than his 1.67 metres would safely allow and pulled a catch to deep midwicket to end the innings.

Beyond the numbers, Bavuma’s performance was a fist of Langa sunshine punching through the gunmetal grey of a Cape Town winter’s day. He used his feet as well as his head to select strokes with purpose and play them with poise. Where others fiddled and floundered, he sizzled and soared. Despite his progress, Bavuma will not be happy, at least until his next Test innings.

“Consistency is important. Sometimes you score a hundred, and the next two or three games you score nothing. It takes you another four games to wake up and score another hundred.”

Bavuma inched towards that exacting standard last season, scoring three centuries in six innings in first-class matches for South Africa A and the Lions. All told, he has made 11 hundreds in 79 first-class matches.

There is a feistiness to his batting that is a trademark of the short and muscular, and a determination that comes with quality.

“I used to play every shot in the book, but as you gain experience you learn to trim your game and you start understanding what you can and what you can’t do.

“When you are a youngster, you just want to score runs – as many and as fast as possible. Naturally, certain shots went out of the window. I used to like scooping the fast bowlers over the wicketkeeper’s head, that kind of thing.

“My aspiration is to play for SA, but to take it further and be successful at that level. I don’t just want to be a guy who has the cap, even though that is an honour. I want to leave a mark at international level.”

When Amla handed over a team sheet containing Bavuma’s name at St George’s Park on December 26 last year, 1448 days and 30 Tests in which South Africa had not fielded a black African were ended.

If we suspend our disbelief to include the myth of merit selection – which, despite all the reactionary noise made about it, has never existed in South African cricket – we can ask whether Bavuma earned his place through runs or race.

In first-class franchise cricket last season he scored two centuries and four 50s in 11 innings for an average of 69.37. Thirteen players banked more runs than Bavuma and five scored more hundreds. Neither Van Zyl nor Rilee Rossouw were among them, but Stephen Cook was. Of those who had at least 10 innings, only Morne van Wyk had a higher average than Bavuma.

All of which muddies rather than clears the waters of the selectorial stream. Again beyond the numbers, it is difficult to poke holes in Bavuma’s case for filling the vacancy for a tough nugget in SA’s middle order.

But poke holes people will try to do. So perhaps it is no co-incidence that Bavuma gave a better indication of his ability by scoring that half-century in Chittagong only after Kagiso Rabada became not only South African cricket’s new great black hope but also its next rock star fast bowler by claiming 6/16 in the first ODI against Bangladesh. Rabada’s raid featured a hattrick, and his figures were the best by a debutant in ODI history.

The hype junkies will be happy with that. Those more rooted in reality will be, too. But they will be just as keen on charting Bavuma’s progress – especially the 50 000 or so people in the Langa from whence he came.

Bavuma is ours to cheer and be proud of, but he is theirs to have and to hold forever.

Test Match Special Street

Vilakazi Street in Orlando West in Soweto is famous for giving the world two Nobel peace prize winners in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Rubusana Street in Langa isn’t in that league, but how many streets in the world have given cricket two Test players?

Both Thami Tsolekile and Temba Bavuma call this strip of tar home. That’s seven Test caps between them, and counting. In fact, there might yet be many more where those came from – Siyabulela Simetu and Malusi Siboto are from the same drag.

Had South Africa’s history been different the list could have been still longer, what with the previous generation of Rubusana’s roster including Morgan Mfobo and Albert Nkomo.

All six of those players were selected for the South African Schools XI.

But it’s not all about Rubusana Street. The surrounding township has long been the heart of black cricket in the Western Cape thanks to the roots sunk deeply by the Langa Cricket Club, which has grown into the Langa Sports Complex boasting quality cricket, hockey and football facilities.

Next to Claremont in Constantia or Wanderers in Illovo, Langa’s clubhouse looks like the kid with the bursary at a posh school. But, to Langa’s people, it is everything.

Sixth of the best

Temba Bavuma is the sixth black African to play Test cricket for South Africa, a fact that is startling enough considering 314 men of various other shades and persuasions have done so.

But here’s an even more rare truth: Bavuma is the first black African frontline batsman to earn that accolade. The rest are seamers – Makhaya Ntini, Mfuneko Ngam, Monde Zondeki and Lonwabo Tsotsobe – and a wicketkeeper, Thami Tsolekile. That Tsotsobe, a left-armer, should get onto the list before Bavuma only adds to the oddity.

It is either foolish or racist to argue that blacks are better suited to bowling than batting, what with giants like Viv Richards and Brian Lara sharing Bavuma’s hue.

Could prejudice be a factor? After all, black rugby players seem far more likely to end up on the wing. Then again, in coloured cricket clubs more players call themselves allrounders than anything else. And white strikers are thin on the ground – compared to defenders – in professional football in South Africa.

Clearly, there is no black and white answer.

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