Despite disappointing with bat, opener is an inspiring and unifying force for teammates and the country with a divisive past, feels Geoffrey Toyana
South Africa had just lost another World Cup semifinal. David Miller was frustrated. He had been here before – in 2015. “The tears were a lot more in Auckland,” he’d distinguish. The word ‘chokers’ was thrown around once again in Kolkata on Thursday but South Africa’s centurion didn’t believe it was an apt description of his side’s most recent elimination.
All said and done though, it was another scarring exit for the Proteas. And standing in the middle of the fire was their captain Temba Bavuma.
Did the Proteas really need him in the playing XI? He scored a mere 145 runs from nine innings, averaging a dismal 18.12 as an opener at this World Cup. Reeza Hendricks hasn’t done much wrong to be on the bench. As far as captaincy goes, long-time prospect Aiden Markram managed to hold fort in Bavuma’s absence.
Miller sprung to the captain’s defence. “Unfortunately, he didn’t get runs. But to have a leader like him is always important. He did a great job.”
Miller isn’t the only one. Despite being put under the scanner in his recent outings, Bavuma still has the backing from many in South Africa. Like his former coach Geoffrey Toyana, who may have some of the answers one is looking for. But first, a flashback.
Not that long ago, South Africa’s leading run scorer at this World Cup, Quinton de Kock’s place in the dressing room was up for debate after he made himself unavailable for selection, refusing to take a knee with his teammates to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement during the 2021 T20 World Cup; a decision that risked his place in the squad, his relationship with teammates, or so it seemed.
“It was a big issue in South Africa at the time. People were not sure what was happening. We had farmer killings here in South Africa as well. When the BLM came around, there were people who responded to it with ‘all lives matter’, not knowing why that phrase was conjured up, and why that was important. There was no clarity from Cricket South Africa as well,” recalls Toyana, who’s also coached de Kock.
Then came Bavuma’s warm words at the press conference where he stood for his wicketkeeper-batsman not taking a knee. “Quinton is still one of the players. He’s still one of the boys, so whatever support that he needs, whatever shoulder that he requires from his teammates, we’ll be there for him.”
It’s one of the incidents Toyana cites to make a case for the Proteas skipper.
He mounts a defence of Bavuma the batsman as well. “If we talk about his batting, he’s put in the runs.” Since the 2019 World Cup, Bavuma is among a group of six batsmen who’ve scored over 1,300 ODI runs and averaged above 43. “This World Cup, he’s struggled with injury as well. So you’ve to take that into account as well.”
More than a cricketer
As a captain, his former coach firmly believes that Bavuma is among the best in the world. Most of his on-field calls back that assessment and Toyana puts it down to Bavuma’s personality. “He’s the kind the players want to turn up for. Short in stature, but strong in character.”
Listen to this. “Since his early cricketing days, we’ve given him the nickname Sachin. The thing that put him apart even when he wasn’t a captain is what you saw of him when he spoke. The people want to listen to what he has to say. It’s a strong trait to have as a leader.
“Yeah, he’s been under pressure. He’s been through tough times, people talking around the corners of social media. But we believe in him. His name says a lot as well. Temba is a Xhosa name, meaning hope. It’s fitting. We’re hoping he’ll do something special for us. Things like that tend to get the people of South Africa together. When somebody like that does something special, the whole country tends to get around him.”
Toyana can’t help but draw parallels with the Springboks’ Siya Kolisi, the black captain who’s led South Africa to consecutive Rugby World Cup wins, someone who Bavuma has openly described as his role model. While it’s no secret that the two sports and the two captains have enjoyed vastly contrasting fates at world events, the importance of South Africa’s first black full-time captain can’t be denied owing to the complex socio-political realities in the region that also reflect in sport. Remember the CSA hearings and the systematic racial flaws it had unleashed not that long ago?
Toyana recalls his own childhood, growing up in the Apartheid era, when his father used to play cricket for the Black XI in the 60s. “The importance of cricket wasn’t that much back then. We were segregated. The black people weren’t allowed to watch a game. I remember how things changed after unity, when we first took a bus from Soweto to watch South Africa play at the Wanderers, when people started to accept one another as people. Yes, there’s still a gap between blacks and whites. It still happens. Where the black people are, the townships have no facilities. There’s a gap… but we try to fill that. To make sure, we take our kids off the streets and take them to play sports. Any sport: Rugby, football or cricket.”
To his former coach, the boy named hope is a sign of things changing in South Africa’s cricket landscape. Who knows, maybe even a World Cup win? “We’re going to win it in 2027, there’s no doubt about that.”