If anyone thought 2020 would be the year when South Africans stopped being obsessed about race, they were wrong. The year began with more arguments around race, the central figure this time being Temba Bavuma, the South African cricketer.
Bavuma, who has been something of a regular in the national side since his debut against the West Indies in Port Elizabeth in 2014, was left out of the side for the recent Test match against England in Cape Town. He had not been selected for the first match of the series at Centurion due to injury, being replaced by Rassie van der Dussen.
However, Bavuma is not just any cricketer. He was the first black player to play as a batsman for South Africa and was also the first black cricketer to score a hundred for the Proteas. He is also more than just a cricketer. Like Makhaya Ntini, the first black player ever to have played for South Africa, he represents something bigger than himself.
But Bavuma has had a rough ride of late, and his overall statistics are not particularly eye-catching. Since his debut, he has played 39 Test matches with a batting average of 31. As any fan of cricket knows, an average of 35 or lower for a player who regularly bats in the top six, as Bavuma does, is simply too low. In addition, he has scored only one Test century, also not good enough for someone in Bavuma’s playing role.
And Bavuma’s form has fallen away badly since the series against the Australians in 2018. In the ten matches since that series (in which Bavuma played well and narrowly missed scoring a hundred in the final match at the Wanderers), he has averaged only 23, with only one fifty. In 2019, his form was even worse, averaging less than twenty in the seven matches he’s played.
It is true that these figures include a nightmare series against India, where all South Africa’s batsmen struggled. However, since the 2018 series against Australia, out of all the batsmen who have played more than one match for South Africa, only Theunis de Bruyn has performed worse than Bavuma. And De Bruyn is no longer even in the national squad, never mind the national XI.
Looking at these figures, it is unsurprising that both De Bruyn and Bavuma were dropped from the Test side and sent back to play for their franchises to find form.
But like Ntini before him, Bavuma is not, as noted earlier, an ordinary cricketer and represents something bigger than himself. And unsurprisingly, the dropping of Bavuma has turned a great number of South Africans into cricket experts. As certain as the sun rises in the east, claims have been made that Bavuma was dropped because he was black and that the new management team, which includes Proteas legends Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher, and Jacques Kallis, are somehow racist. This is despite Bavuma’s obvious drop-off in form and overall lacklustre international numbers. Indeed, another former Protea, Herschelle Gibbs, went so far as to say Bavuma simply does not have what it takes to make it at international level.
Gibbs may be right, but it is troubling that nearly 30 years after South Africa was readmitted to international cricket and 25 years after apartheid formally ended, there are still relatively few black players in the side. In the current side, only Kagiso Rabada is black (although Lungi Ngidi would likely be in the playing XI if not for injury).
More concerning is that there is a relative dearth of black players pushing for selection at national level, especially in the Test side. Andile Phehlukwayo was named in the squad to play the English in the current series (although he did not make the XI in either of the two Tests played so far), but there are question marks around his abilities at Test level. He is one of South Africa’s best limited-over cricketers at the moment, but this does not always translate into being a good Test player – ask David Miller.
Furthermore, in the current franchise competition there is only one black player in the top 20 run-scorers. The numbers are slightly better amongst the bowlers – there are three black players among the top 20 wicket-takers this season. The figures for the previous season are not much better.
But at the same time transformation requirements (such as having a certain number of black players in the XI) can be as damaging to the player. Bavuma is far better served by finding form in domestic cricket than trying to score runs in the cauldron that is Test cricket. And there has also been a reluctance to rest a player like Rabada and risk falling short of transformation requirements. This, coupled with Rabada’s stint in the Indian Premier League, saw the player perform at below his best last year due to injury and fatigue, particularly in the World Cup, where South Africa had a disappointing tournament.
And transformation requirements are becoming increasingly onerous. While the transformation requirements for the Proteas are that there must be an average of six players of colour in an XI (two of whom must be black) taken as an average across all formats and across the entire season, it is different for franchise sides. For these teams, in each match, the XI must have six players of colour, three of whom must be black, and this cannot be deviated from. In a match in October last year, the Cape Town-based side, the Cobras, fielded an XI with seven players of colour of which only two were black. The team was reprimanded, despite the team’s coach, former Protea Ashwell Prince, having informed Cricket South Africa that the team would deviate from transformation diktats for the match. The team will not be punished for missing its target but will be expected to make up the numbers in a future match.
Bizarrely, there are also transformation requirements for amateur club sides.
Bavuma has become something of a weathervane for those who believe his exclusion is symptomatic of broader racism within South Africa cricket. But the reality is that Bavuma has not done enough to keep his place. Keeping him in the side will only weaken the team and, in all likelihood, damage his confidence if he plays in this important series when he is out of form.
Representation is important, and the chattering classes can bleat about transformation as much as they like, but the selectors can only pick from the talent that is available, and there is a relative dearth of black players. The ‘why’ of this question is something that we need to determine if black cricketers are not to remain a relative rarity in the sport in South Africa.
But one thing that can be assured is that cricket will remain a game of the elite when only five percent of public schools have a cricket pitch. It will remain a game of the elite when 40% of the country is unemployed and a full entry-level cricket kit costs more than what many people earn in a month.
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