After 45 Tests across seven years, Temba Bavuma continues to split opinion, but only because he hasn’t stepped up to take control, writes Rohit Sankar.
Temba Bavuma averages 33.09 and has recorded just one Test hundred despite crossing the half-century mark 17 times in his Test career. It’s this seemingly ordinary record and the fact that he is a black African cricketer — the ‘quota pick’ angle has been used in rinse-repeat mode by fans every series — that makes South African fans fume at his selection.
At one glance, Bavuma’s record is indeed ordinary. Since his Test debut, only two batters (only top seven batting positions considered) have played more Tests than him despite averaging lower: Kraigg Braithwaite and Jos Buttler. Those two bring specific skillsets – Brathwaite can see off the new ball while Buttler is a counter-attacking lower middle-order batter aside from being a wicketkeeper – to the table that justifies their selection.
No player who isn’t a wicketkeeper or an all-rounder who bowls significantly from South Africa’s Test history has played more Tests averaging lower with the bat. It’s commendable, then, that South Africa have stuck by him largely (he has been dropped and recalled a few times, but has played in 45 of the 58 Tests South Africa have played since his debut). However, it’s pertinent to give context to these stats that seem poor on paper and understand why the Proteas value him, so much so that he was in the Test leadership debate just last year.
Bavuma is sandwiched between a largely underperforming top-order and a shoddy tail in the South African batting line-up. Since 2019, South Africa’s top four average 27.73 in Test cricket, the worst for any team after West Indies (excluding Ireland, who have played just two Tests). Their tailenders (No.8-11) average 12.7, the worst after Sri Lanka (excluding Afghanistan, who have played just five Tests) among Test-playing nations.
To be a middle-order batter in this line-up is hard, but Bavuma, to an extent, along with Quinton de Kock, have saved the side the blushes. While de Kock has averaged over 40 and struck at a rate of over 70 since 2019, Bavuma has recorded 10 scores greater than 30, the most in this Protea side after Dean Elgar and de Kock himself.
Thrice in the first Test against India at Centurion, a partnership involving Bavuma halted India’s charge with the ball. If the de Kock-Bavuma 72-run stand in the first innings lifted South Africa from an alarming 32-4, the Bavuma-Elgar, and Bavuma-Jansen partnerships in the second essay briefly gave the Proteas hopes of somehow salvaging the Test.
This, effectively, has been Bavuma’s template in this South African Test line-up. It’s neither as glamorous as de Kock’s flashy fifties nor as defiant as Faf du Plessis’ blockathons. With cricket’s obsession with milestones, Bavuma’s one Test century in seven years makes for unpleasant reading. It also means that his efforts with the bat often go under the radar and makes Bavuma an easy scapegoat for South Africa’s shortcomings with the bat.
Since his Test debut, only one player in Test cricket has recorded as many scores of thirty or more without making more than one hundred: Niroshan Dickwella, who has none to his name. Bavuma, like Dickwella, has 32 such scores with just one converted into a hundred. Many factors contribute to this, but a floundering top-order and a flailing tail mean that Bavuma is often left without adequate support.
With de Kock, South Africa’s best Test batter by a mile in the last two years, retiring from the format and the top-order woes continuing, now more than ever is when the Proteas need Bavuma to repay the faith they have placed on him despite all the outside noise around his selection.
The unglamorous 30s have laid a platform for de Kock or helped raise a ton in the top order in the past, but now with four high-profile middle-order Test retirements since 2018 — AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, and now Quinton de Kock — South Africa need Bavuma to take control and play to the crowds, to get those fancy three-figures and raise the bat a few more times.