TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg
“IS Bavuma good enough?” The question was asked from Cumbria, deep in the heart of a certain kind of Englishness, on Facebook last Saturday. The second test between South Africa and England at Newlands was not quite 100 minutes old.
Came the reply: “If Faf du Plessis is good enough, Temba’s good enough. He’s also too black for some people’s liking.”
Bit sharp, but by then the question had been asked too often in the month after South Africa’s squad to play the first two tests against England had been announced.
The follow-up from Cumbria was not a question: “Lacks footwork against top bowlers!”
England fast bowler Ben Stokes probably thought so, too. “You’re absolutely shit,” Stokes spat at Bavuma in response to an edge that scooted to the boundary early in his innings on Tuesday.
Three or so hours later, Bavuma collected another four off the edge of his bat. This one took him to his maiden test century, the first scored by a black African for South Africa, which he celebrated with a roar mighty enough to have ripped from someone twice his 1.67 metres.
False though those strokes were, they were rarities in an innings of breathtaking momentum, a performance as technically correct as it was entertaining. Bavuma didn’t so much play his shots as essay them.
They were powerful, punchy prose poems – particularly his cover drive and his pull – that rhymed all around one of cricket’s most iconic stages.
Not a sound has since been heard from Cumbria. Perhaps the question should be considered answered.
Ezra Cagwe has known the answer for almost half of Bavuma’s 25 years.
“He was 13 and batting No. 5 for Langa thirds,” Cagwe said. “I came in at No. 9, and we needed 140 to win. I was 50 years old but we got the runs, most of them in singles – taking singles is not about how you run them, it’s about how you watch them.”
By then, Cagwe and Bavuma were well-acquainted.
“I’ve known Temba since he was three years old. His uncles were my friends and we played for Langa together. His grandfather’s house was one of the first in the township to have TV. We used to go there, and it became like a clubhouse for us.”
Cagwe began coaching at Langa Cricket Club in 1978 and is now Western Province Cricket’s development co-ordinator.
Bavuma, who has passed through his hands, among others, is unusual in that he is a frontline batsman. Five of the six other black Africans who have played test cricket for South Africa are seam bowlers. The other, Thami Tsolekile, is a wicketkeeper.
Cagwe hoped that Bavuma’s emergence at the highest level would help buck that trend.
“Temba is making my job easier, because most of the boys I coach want to be bowlers,” Cagwe said.
“You see, during apartheid black people supported the West Indies, who had great bowlers who destroyed opponents. So everybody wanted to be a bowler. It also takes kids a shorter time to learn how to bowl compared to how to bat.
“Also, most guys who are good batsmen come from money. It takes a long time to develop a batsman and they have to practise and practise.
“So guys who become good batsmen tend to have specialised coaching, and perhaps their fathers or uncles played cricket. Other boys depend on people like me, because sometimes where they come from there is no culture of cricket.”
Happily, Bavuma was born into that culture. Tsolekile was one of his neighbours on Langa’s Rubusana Street, as were franchise players Siyabulela Simetu and Malusi Siboto.
As the son of Vuyo Bavuma, a former political editor of the Star, Bavuma’s childhood was closer to middle class than that of most black South Africans. Another rarity among modern cricketers is that he holds a university degree, in finance.
But black Africans remain under-represented in the upper echelons of cricket in South Africa. Cagwe pinned his hopes for a darker future on the whiteness of the past.
“People thought Afrikaners didn’t play cricket,” he said. “Then attitudes changed. I think they are going to change again.”
The biggest trailblazer for that change remains Makhaya Ntini, who despite deeply entrenched and strengthened transformation policies is still the only black African to became a regular member of the South African team.
Ntini, who played 101 tests, 173 one-day internationals and 10 Twenty20 internationals, knows better than most how Bavuma feels and what he will face in future.
“Everybody is going to look up to him, and they are going to look at every move he makes, and at every step and every misstep he takes,” Ntini said. “Because he has performed, there are going to be more eyes on him.
“So he needs to keep his feet on the ground, forget about what happened yesterday and keep challenging himself for tomorrow.”
One test century, however fine it was, Ntini did not say, will not stop the question from being asked. Sooner than would be the case for white players of similar ability and experience, someone will want to know, “Is Bavuma good enough?”
Transformation is anathema in some quarters, where it is seen as forcing white players out of the game or to move to other countries.
But, as another cricketer of colour said this week, “You don’t look like me in this world without being firm on what you want to do.”
That was Hashim Amla announcing his resignation as SA’s test captain after the Newlands test. Amla is obviously of Asian descent and obviously muslim. As much as some will consider those advantages, others will see them as millstones.
“Temba is a very good example for us,” Amla said. “The way he batted in this game was very inspirational for even (experienced) guys like me; the intent he showed. I wish when I was his age, I showed that type of confidence. I was extremely happy, very proud; those were goosebump moments.
“We have very similar careers. The first time when you play test cricket everybody doubts you because of the colour of your skin. Even though you’ve got the stats to back it up domestically, everybody doubts you for various reasons.
“I know the pressure players of colour go through when they first come into the set up in our country. It was emotional for a lot of us, a lot of us felt it was a victory for the Proteas in the sense that the team environment is in a really good space.
“I hope I played a small part in his success and I’m glad that he quietened a lot of people down.”
Amla saw the antidote to that unfairness inside the dressingroom.
“The way he has played was for me a testament to the environment we have in the team. Everybody knows how talented he is and the potential he has. Because he has done it before – it’s not like he just came into the team from nowhere.”
In some ways, Bavuma followed a path to the top similar to many other players. In others, not.
“At first cricket was just a passion,” he said. “I played it for the love of it. When I made the (South African) under-19 side, I realised that cricket can be more than just a passion; that it can be something that I do to inspire other people.
“When I made my (test) debut for South Africa I came to be a bit more aware and realise the significance behind it all. It’s not just me making my debut, it’s almost being a model and an inspiration for other kids, black African kids in particular to aspire to. In achieving this kind of milestone, that will strengthen that example.
“It’s a whole lot of pressure. I understand the significance. It’s not just me walking onto the field. There’s a whole lot of kids. I looked at the kids who were (at Newlands) for the KFC (min-cricket games) during lunchtime. Half of those kids come from Langa and half of those kids know my name.”
That’s another false stroke, Mr Bavuma, but you’re forgiven. All the kids in Langa know your name. And not only in Langa. Batting like yours respects no boundaries. Kids everywhere are dreaming about performing a prose poem at the crease. Even in Cumbria.