The last time Temba Bavuma played for South Africa was at Rajkot three months ago. He took a hit to the shoulder from a Bhuvneshwar Kumar pusher, and later at the same time injured his elbow while diving to complete a run. He retired injured and the elbow injury kept him out of South Africa’s next big tour, England.
Bavuma is back now, back in India and back to lead the South African team T20I. However, the world around him is not the same.
In the three-match T20I series against England, Rilee Rossouw made a successful return to international cricket after six years of exile from Kolpak, breaking 96 of 55 unbeaten balls in the second T20I in Cardiff and going on 31 of 18 in the next game. in Southampton. Reeza Hendricks, meanwhile, scored half-centuries in each of three games against England, and followed that up with 74 and 42 in their two legs against Ireland in Bristol.
Hendricks, Quinton de Kock and Rossouw made up South Africa’s top three first choice against England, with Rassie van der Dussen replacing Rossouw against Ireland.
Van der Dussen is injured and ruled out of this India tour and subsequent T20 World Cup, but Bavuma is back and South Africa still have four contenders for three top spots.
Bavuma is their captain and de Kock is one of the best goalkeeper-beaters in the world. This means either Hendricks or Rossouw will have to sit out unless South Africa rest their first-choice players.
It’s a difficult situation, and one that will put Bavuma’s role in the spotlight. He’s used to scrutiny, but that won’t make him any less uncomfortable.
Bavuma has plenty of credit on the captaincy front, given he has the second-best win-loss record of any captain to have captained South Africa at least 10 times in the T20Is. And he played a pivotal role in guiding the team through turbulent times at last year’s T20 World Cup, following de Kock’s refusal to take a knee before their match against West Indies. He sensed immediately after the incident that the team might implode; instead, they won four out of five games, missing the semifinals solely on their net run rate, and managed to re-enter a contrite de Kock.
So when it came time for South Africa to choose their squad for this year’s tournament in Australia, it was no surprise that they reiterated their faith in Bavuma’s leadership.
But does he deserve to be selected purely as a hitter? It’s a question that has followed Bavuma throughout his international career, often in insinuating tones, and mostly unfairly, as he has always had the foundations of skill and temperament upon which successful Test careers are built.
But Bavuma was named white ball captain when he had yet to find his feet as a white ball hitter. Although his ODI record stands up to scrutiny, his T20 numbers are modest. His non-selection at the SA20 auction caused poor optics and raised several questions – what it means for an ostensibly South African domestic tournament to have no transformation goals deserves a separate piece – but you could argue that a strike rate of 124.67 after 100 plays, and no secondary skills – unless you count his athleticism in the 30-yard circle – left him open to that possibility. The SA20 team owners, who all also own teams in the IPL, could argue that ignoring Bavuma was no different than ignoring Cheteshwar Pujara at an IPL auction.
But Pujara is not the captain of his national team in T20I.
Bavuma does, and in addition to fulfilling all the other requirements of the job, he has to contend with a relentless schedule of press conferences. Less than a week ago, he had sent one where he mentioned his disappointment at not having been chosen for the SA20. On Tuesday, on the eve of the first T20I in Thiruvananthapuram, he was asked if he thinks he has more to prove ahead of this series and the World Cup than usual.
“I tried to put all those things behind me,” Bavuma said. “Like I said earlier, my biggest focus is on the role I have, which is leading and serving the team the best I can, making sure the guys are in the best place possible before this big World Cup tournament. All the other distractions, all the other sideshows, those are things that I’m going to deal with on a personal level, but now here, being on the team, both that I will always wear this shirt, it will be to lead and serve the team as best I can.”
That’s all he can do, the only controllable parent in the sea of uncontrollables his cricketing life has often resembled.