Cape Town – The sky seems the limit for Temba Bavuma following his rightly-trumpeted maiden century for South Africa in the prestigious New Year Test match against England at Newlands a few days back.
It is difficult to feel anything but optimistic and hopeful for his future contribution to the country’s five-day cause after his important statistical landmark – achieved with authoritative stroke-play and startling assuredness -- for any ambitious international-level batsman.
Yet few people need reminding that cricket is a fickle, sometimes cruel game; sunny skies can cloud over at a surprising rate of knots.
If the 25-year-old Bavuma is to nail down a long-term berth, as a formidable array of enthusiasts will wish him to do, a clear-cut plan for his continued development and well-being would be beneficial to him.
He carries special pressures ... as generous media features the world over have not been slow to reiterate since his drought-ending achievement as first black African player to get to three figures for the Proteas.
Everyone wants a piece of him right now, and the temptation to make him a prominent poster-boy in Cricket South Africa’s public relations drive will be overwhelming.
Fortunately, by all accounts, the player himself is determined to stay grounded and focused and not fall prey to sideshows that could have an adverse effect on his performance.
Very much the same applies to his family: I can tell you for free that his father Vuyo, an old newspaper colleague of mine and devout in his wish not to be an interfering figure in Temba’s career progress, is all too aware of what he termed to me the damaging “Capriati effect” in sport.
Three-time Grand Slam singles title winner Jennifer Capriati was dragged onto the pro circuit by her (now late) father Stefano when barely into her teens, and doubled as her coach with a notoriously bullying and pushy reputation.
Notable success followed, but Capriati also burned out early, beset by personal problems including drug abuse, suicide contemplation and varying criminal charges.
That is an extreme case, of course, and it is most unlikely the self-motivated and sensible Temba Bavuma would ever slip down such avenues.
On that note, it is worth remembering that he is, arguably, already more world-wise than many other SA cricketers, given his Unisa degree in financial management which stands him in good stead for a career outside the game if that is required later in life.
Nor is Bavuma the stereotypical “rags to riches” or “lad from the kraal” story as a black cricketer making it to the top in our country: certainly nothing like Makhaya Ntini, the cattle-herder from remote Mdingi village in the Eastern Cape, or Mfuneko Ngam, who came from a similarly rural environment and had his sadly career-curtailing injuries apparently influenced by poor childhood nutrition.
Bavuma wasn’t exactly brought up with a silver spoon in his mouth – few were in then still pre-democracy Langa – but he was also part of a gradually emerging middle-class movement and beneficiary of ivy-league schooling, if you like, in both Cape Town and later Johannesburg.
He knows how to stand on his own two feet, thank you very much.
There has already been talk of his abilities translating into an additional challenge for spots in the Proteas’ two limited-overs sides, but my own thoughts on that score would tend toward the “easy, tiger!” variety.
The player has largely made his patient, pleasing strides thus far at first-class level, and I believe it would be better for him to try to genuinely bed down as a Test regular before harbouring any ambitions to crack the ODI and T20 SA folds.
I have a strong gut feel that the multi-day game is and will remain Bavuma’s forte for the foreseeable future, and that too much limited-overs distraction and the changed emphasis it requires runs the risk of dispersing rather than enhancing his skills.
In his longer-term interest, perhaps, I feel a stint in county cricket – ideally next UK season? – might reap rewards in his quest to become as rounded a batsman as possible.
England is one country among the major powers where Bavuma sports negligible experience, and remains a valued “finishing school” in many respects for players aware of the unique, highly variable conditions there and how useful it can be to master them.
Current Proteas Test team-mates like Hashim Amla (Derbyshire and Essex), Faf du Plessis (Lancashire) and Dean Elgar (Somerset and Surrey) have benefited from spells in the County Championship – these days you don’t have to commit to a full season; a few intensive weeks here or there has become reasonably fashionable for overseas stars.
A concerted spell in England would also prepare Bavuma nicely for South Africa’s extended presence there in 2017, when they play four Tests, but also some bilateral ODIs and will take part in the ICC Champions Trophy on that soil.
He has relatively few other major holes yet to fill in terms of cricket globetrotting, given that he has already shown his mettle on the Subcontinent, with some gritty contributions to the Test cause in both Bangladesh and India last year – he has long been a decent, purposeful player of spin – and also proved that he can do the business in the greatly different Australian landscape.
Bavuma’s first-class best, after all, remains the 162 he registered for SA ‘A’ against their Aussie counterparts in Queensland in 2014, when he and Rilee Rossouw transformed a precarious position with a massive alliance of 343.
My understanding is that the diminutive battler is also fairly keen to contemplate embracing greater responsibility for his Lions franchise, ideally taking guard considerably higher up the order in Sunfoil Series cricket than his more traditional berths around numbers five or six.
Being closer to dealing with a shiny newer, harder ball would only enhance his technical development, as well as increase the chance of genuinely lengthy vigils by him.
With a bit of luck we may be some way off the best yet of Temba Bavuma, as long as his trajectory is managed patiently and sagely.
Amidst mounting, inevitable hype, the cart mustn’t be allowed to be lugged indelicately in front of the horse.
So far, the signs seem pretty good that this won’t be allowed to happen.
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