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Proteas’ bold Bavuma will channel spirit of Lara, Kolisi in defining new chapter

Proteas’ bold Bavuma will channel spirit of Lara, Kolisi in defining new chapter
Temba Bavuma dives during the 2nd KFC T20 International match between South Africa and England at Hollywoodbets Kingsmead Stadium on 14 February 2020 in Durban. (Photo: Anesh Debiky / Gallo Images)

‘Sport can unite people like nothing can,’ says Temba Bavuma, the first black African to lead the Proteas’ limited-overs teams. But, he tells Jon Cardinelli, winning is the only way the Proteas are going to effect significant change

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Off the field, Temba Bavuma has worked tirelessly to establish a foundation bearing his name, which aims to break the cycle of poverty and to challenge the widely held perception that cricket is a white man’s game. Bavuma, after all, is proof that a black batsman can rise from humble circumstances to the pinnacle of the sport.

It’s not hard to understand why an ambitious organisation such as RocNation – which recently added Bavuma to their stable of high-profile South African athletes – is drawing parallels between Bavuma and Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. The latter made history in 2018 when he became the first black African to lead the Springboks. With the help of a diverse team, Kolisi went on to lift the 2019 World Cup.

And yet, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to bet on the Proteas – currently ranked fifth in one-day international (ODI) cricket and sixth in T20Is – winning the next set of World Cups.

South Africa have struggled since the lockdown was lifted last year, and the coaches, as well as the players, have been criticised in the public and media space. It must be said, however, that the power struggle at Cricket South Africa (CSA) has compromised the players’ performance. 

Chaotic few months

As Bavuma tells DM168 in his straight, matter-of-fact manner, winning matches is the only way the Proteas are going to effect significant change.

Again, his words echo those of Kolisi and former Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, who have long spoken about results as the priority – even for a sporting nation with various and, at times, complex ambitions.

“Sport can unite the people like nothing can,” Bavuma says. “It all starts with building a winning team, though. You can’t create that vibe and energy without getting the necessary results… We’re not kidding ourselves about the hard work that’s in front of us.

“The past few months have been chaotic, with all that has been happening on and off the field,” he admits. “There’s been some negativity and some distractions. That’s the challenge – to keep your focus in spite of all that.”

Bavuma grew up in Langa on the outskirts of Cape Town. Although he was smaller than his peers, he always had a big heart. His competitive spirit was further developed during the intense contests that would play out on the streets of the township.

In the 1990s, black Africans were few and far between at the higher levels of the game in South Africa. Bavuma and his friends were captivated by the West Indies – a side that was past its best yet still boasted one of the greatest batsmen: Brian Lara.

“The West Indians played with a swagger and an energy that meant more than the statistics suggest,” Bavuma says. “Lara was a hero of mine. Everybody remembers what a great batsman he was in terms of talent, the runs he scored, and the records he broke … but, as a youngster, I was captivated by his ability to destroy opposition bowling attacks and win games single-handedly. When he was on top, he was ruthless. Then I started to see something similar in local players like Ashwell Prince, Makhaya Ntini and Monde Zondeki. The country started to change [with more black players receiving opportunities] and I started to dream about playing the game I love for the Proteas.”

Bavuma led his franchise, the Lions, to the first-class and T20 titles in the 2018/19 season. He scored a century in the T20 final – a statement in itself considering he had been pigeon-holed as a red-ball specialist at the highest level.

A hamstring injury cut short his involvement with the Proteas in the recent series against Pakistan. There were moments, however, when he showed his intent as a leader and a batsman. 

Temba Bavuma of South Africa fielding during the 2021 3rd Betway One-Day International match between South Africa and Pakistan at SuperSport Park Stadium, Centurion, on 7 April 2021. (Photo: Samuel Shivambu / BackpagePix)

Leading from the front

“Brian Lara wasn’t scared of anything,” he reiterates. “I saw his attitude as a batsman and as leader, and I decided that I wanted to be just like that when I was older.

“It’s part of my philosophy now. When you lead from the front, you give your teammates a reason to believe in you. You can only talk about team plans so much before you, as an individual, have to put them into action.

“That’s me in a nutshell. I lead in an aggressive manner – and I think it’s a style that suits this South African team.”

Bavuma is aware of the criticism and, in some quarters, the negativity around his appointment. Kolisi experienced something similar early on in his tenure as Springbok captain.

“These distractions threaten your focus. They come at you from all directions, like a series of balls all delivered at the same time.

“It’s a challenge, sure, but once you commit to a course of action, you keep your eye on the ball no matter what.”

What’s more, Bavuma hasn’t been afraid to tackle broader issues that ultimately affect the team. The Proteas skipper recently added his name to a letter calling for an end to the infighting at CSA. A source confirmed that his comments on the matter were both thoughtful and engaging. It’s clear that he won’t shy away from his responsibilities.

“It’s important that we put that matter to bed,” Bavuma says. “It is crucial that we give the stakeholders in South African cricket a reason to be confident about where the game is going. We’re working towards solutions that will take the game forward.

“I’m not going to lie; it’s been difficult for the players to get drawn into all of that over the past few months. Now that it’s being resolved, we will have the chance to focus on what needs to happen on the field.” 

Creating pathways

The dearth of black African batsmen at the highest level has been spoken about at length. Perhaps Bavuma, via his foundation, will help to bring the next great prospects from the townships to the top flight.

“We help these youngsters with equipment and school fees. We connect them to good schools. We create a pathway that I myself was fortunate to walk. I was able to nurture my abilities at top cricket schools in Cape Town and Johannesburg. I was taken out of one system and put into another.

“I had some challenges along the way, but I’m grateful that I got those chances. Not everyone is so lucky, which is why I’m committed to helping the next generation of players to realise their dreams.

“The aim is to break the cycle of poverty,” he continues. “I’d love to see these youngsters flourishing to become the next generation of South African cricketers. If they fall short of that ambition, but still manage to get an education and become a successful doctor, that is still a win in my book.”

Kolisi has already helped people in need via his own foundation. Bavuma laughs when he’s asked if the ongoing comparison between himself and Kolisi annoys him.

“If you look back, Siya was given the Springbok captaincy at a time when the team was really struggling.

“Some people doubted that he and the team would succeed. He had to work hard to overcome so many challenges. I will have to do the same. I wouldn’t say that the comparison irritates me. I have a lot of respect for what Siya has achieved as a player and as a human being.

“That said, I want to walk my own path and be my own man. We have a good relationship and I chat to him every now and then, asking for advice. In the end, I know that I can’t try to be like him. I have to be Temba, I have to realise my own destiny.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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