Hail Temba, the barrier-buster

Temba Bavuma (Gallo Images)
Temba Bavuma (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Temba Bavuma’s maiden Test century at Newlands on Tuesday runs the risk of being mislaid in the statistical morass of the high-scoring match it was achieved in, if you revisit the full scoreboard for Test No 2197 a few months or years up the line.

England 629 for declared, South Africa 627 for seven declared, double centuries for Ben Stokes and Hashim Amla, a booming 150 not out from Jonny Bairstow ... Bavuma’s unbeaten 102 is at risk of appearing a mere addendum.

But don’t you believe it.

It already means immeasurably more than that to a great many people, considering the poignancy of his achievement in the stormy South African cricketing saga.

The quest to unearth a black African batsman of genuine international calibre has been a laboured, often painful one.

The process could be said to have been aggravated, in certain respects, by the lopsided normalisation strides made on the fast bowling front in the post-unity era, as all of Makhaya Ntini, Mfuneko Ngam, Monde Zondeki and Lonwabo Tsotsobe earned their caps – Ntini with special, lasting aplomb – for the national five-day cause and more recently Kagiso Rabada swelled the group.

Clearly, some ignoramuses will have convinced themselves in a society not without its legacy of prejudice and stereotyping, black guys just don’t do batting.

The weight on 25-year-old Bavuma’s unusually close-to-the-ground shoulders to explode the myth was unenviable: I know this because I am friendly with his former journalist father Vuyo, once a colleague in the newsroom of The Argus in the eventful 1980s but nowadays immersed in the demands of the business world.

It seems an eternity – well, it is – since we shared the responsibility of inside-page reportage, as aspirant young scribes, on the old John Passmore Week, a noble avenue for giving township schoolboys tourney exposure at Langa Cricket Club, while their white rivals under apartheid strutted their stuff on pristine pitches at annual Nuffield Week.  

Over much more recent coffees, or sometimes slightly stronger elixirs, Vuyo -- who was pleasingly present on Tuesday to witness his son’s advance to the treasured milestone – has often lamented the unique pressures Temba faced (and probably does still) from all sides of our society.

One lobby has cynically believed he is in the national side only to tick a very particular transformation box, and then there is the legion of cricket-lovers in the black community, contrastingly desperate for him to succeed – occasionally to the point of disarming impatience, I gather.

“I’m trying to find the right words,” the century-maker said in an otherwise eloquent appearance at the post-play press conference on Tuesday evening -- where the microphones seemed to tower over him but we were all well aware who the primary figure really was – when asked about the extent of the pressures he wrestles.

And when he said he would “probably see them tonight”, he was referring to elders back in his old Capetonian youth stomping ground of Langa who have never been shy to ply him with advice ... well-meaning, of course, but a lot of information to try to soak up nevertheless.

So whenever Temba takes guard for South Africa, it is never just as another young Joe Bloggs, if you like, trying to show he can cut it at Test level.

There are ever-present, extra thoughts to distract him.

Ahead of this match, he had experienced six relatively inconclusive prior appearances since earning his debut against West Indies in Port Elizabeth in December 2014.

Vuyo was a nervous wreck in the faraway United States around that time, on an unavoidable trip there and caught a little by surprise at the speed of his son’s call-up: he sent me occasional text messages at unorthodox hours of his day, frantically asking how the rain-curtailed St George’s Park clash was going.

Temba’s place was less than assured for this blue-chip New Year affair, with some understandable thoughts that he might be among a handful of skittish Proteas batsmen sacrificed after the Durban thumping (10 and 0 do not amount to the most perfect of ammunition for retention).

Instead Bavuma clung on, and has rewarded the selectors’ faith substantially, now sharing with a certain retired compatriot Jacques Kallis the phenomenon of registering his first Test century in seventh appearance.

It would be cruel and off the mark to suggest his ton was simply a top-up to an already well-advanced South African first-knock total under very favourable conditions.

Yes, he walked to the middle upon captain Hashim Amla’s departure on 201 and at 439 for four, but even as he acclimatised in the scorching sunshine, there was a sudden clatter of further wickets as the score became 449 for six: still a dangerous 180 runs in arrears.

So it is not as though Bavuma was without conventional match-day pressure; there was still a good deal of work to be done to steer the fragile Proteas to better comfort, and he found a capable ally in his former Lions franchise team-mate Chris Morris.

Early on in his 148-ball vigil, the pint-sized but feisty competitor was apparently the recipient of a mike-captured, unflattering tirade from Stokes, though Bavuma later only lauded that opponent and said he hadn’t understood too much of what may have been said in Stokes’s northern English brogue anyway.

Ahead of Newlands, some scribes had suggested Bavuma bordered on the stodgy in his style of batting, perhaps brought on by the fact that he is physically unlikely to ever become a pronounced heave-it-over-the-ropes type of player.

Yet he made rapid, major statements in his first 50 on Tuesday, driving, hooking and pulling with crispness and intent, while resorting for the sake of mix-it-up value also to his already trademark sweeping and dabbing audacity. 

There is no such thing as permanence in a Test XI, of course, but Bavuma has attractively teed up a guaranteed presence, continued fitness permitting, in the follow-up clash at the Wanderers, where he has plied his trade for several years at first-class level.

Those elders and gurus who monitor his every move will be having kittens with sheer excitement already ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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