The importance of becoming South African cricket’s first black African captain is not lost on Temba Bavuma, but that isn’t all he wants to be known for.
“I understand the deeply rooted significance of it all,” he said. “In being the first black African (cricket) captain in our country – you don’t have to look too far in our history and our political situation in our country – so I can completely understand why people in our country would celebrate it for what it is.
“I’d be lying if I said it does not make me think of where everything started for me, and how I’ve been able to go through a journey and get to this point. But combined with being known as the first black African captain, I’d also like to be known as someone who led the team very well and created a legacy for himself.”
Bavuma was unveiled as South Africa’s white-ball captain and red-ball vice-captain on Thursday, two days after he was asked if he wanted to do the job by the powers that be and four days after he led his domestic franchise, the Lions, to a second T20 title in three years.
“I was offered the position as captain and it came to me as a surprise, but it was a no-brainer,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people would turn down this type of honour and privilege.
“Obviously there’s anxiety about not knowing what to expect but a lot of comfort comes from the fact that I know my players and the people who have entrusted me with the decision, I draw a lot of confidence from that because those are people of stature.”
People like South Africa’s most successful captain, Graeme Smith, who is now Cricket South Africa’s director of cricket and was instrumental to the process of appointing Bavuma, alongside selection convener Victor Mpitsang.
“We’ve always known about Temba’s leadership qualities.” Smith said. We wanted to provide a space of support and get behind Temba and get him playing well again.
“We’ve noticed his leadership credentials, the way he’s been operating in the squad and experience he brings. The nature of his tactical captaincy at the Lions, and the feedback we’ve received from within the squad — from the managers and coaches — has been really positive around Temba.”
The same cannot be said with as much confidence about his form. Mention Bavuma, and not far behind comes the trivia that his only Test century came five years ago, or that after 44 Tests his average is 32.26. There are reasons – South Africa’s batting overall has been so poor that he often runs out of partners, for example – and concerns, such as that he bats too slowly, for why Bavuma’s Test numbers aren’t better.
But his new appointment should not be about that. It should also not be about the fact that he has only played six ODIs and eight T20s. Smith had only played eight Tests and 19 ODIs when he was made captain, so there’s precedent for appointing someone without reams of international experience.
What it should be about is the form Bavuma has demonstrated when has captained.He finished the most recent CSA T20 Challenge as the second-leading run-scorer and in the 2018-19 season, when he captained the Lions to the same title, he was the third-highest run-scorer, his hundred in the final securing the trophy.
“I’ve enjoyed the responsibility of leading the side. I’ve done it now for several years, particularly with the Lions. It’s a balancing act between your own ambitions as a player and the interests of the team,” Bavuma said. “And winning, that’s the other thing. Everything I do, the decisions I make, are geared towards what is best for the team. I’ve been able to get results that have been favourable. Being captain is something I enjoy. It comes with pressures, like anything in sport and the world.”
Bavuma’s nous for taking teams on trophy runs – he also earned a first-class title with the Lions – is ultimately what led to his appointment, with World Cups in mind. There are three white-ball World Cups in the next two years – the T20 World Cups in 2021 and 2022 and the fifty-over World Cup in 2023 – and Bavuma will captain South Africa in all of them. That means there’s a lot of expectation on Bavuma, but he is used to it.
He has been since he became the country’s first black African Test batsman and first black African centurion. Then, Bavuma spoke about the seriousness with which he took his position as a role-model to young kids. He has since started a foundation to address some of the socio-economic concerns in the country and provide opportunities for children to play sport, knowing the value it has in nation-building, especially in a country as fractured as South Africa.
In a place where advantage and its opposite determine who has access to sports facilities and coaching, there is still a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots and in South Africa that divide is often along racial lines. That is what makes the demographics of its national teams so important and so topical.
South Africa’s other major sports, specifically rugby (which has a similar history of white dominance) has already had a black captain who produced a fairytale result. In 2019, Siya Kolisi led the Springboks to a third World Cup trophy, under the mantra Stronger Together. That same year, the national cricket team became the first to crash out of the ODI World Cup and returned their worst showing at the event.
In the aftermath of that tournament, South African cricket was plunged into a level of chaos from which they have yet to recover. At administrative level, they remain without a permanent board, or CEO and the restructure of the domestic game is ongoing. On the playing field, they won just one of five trophies available to them last summer and one of three this season and have finished seventh on the World Test Championship points table.
In conversations about favourites for the next white-ball World Cups, South Africa are not considered among the front-runners. It would be unfair to expect Bavuma to change that, but he has been tasked with “shifting South African cricket into a positive space,” as Smith put it, and he seems up for the task.
“It’s a scary, daunting prospect,” Bavuma said. “But there’s a lot of excitement as well. Whether I’m ready or not, time will tell. I’m super willing and committed to the whole process. I’d like to lead the guys to something special.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent