Temba Bavuma was ready for the worst. In the midst of the toughest period in his short international career, when he went seven innings with a highest score of 21 and with South Africa preparing for the return of AB de Villiers, Bavuma accepted he may be the man to make way.
"We all anticipated AB was going to come back sometime. For me, there's not much emotional feeling towards him for pulling out of the Tests for the whole year. He's a world-class player. If I was told to not play because of him, there's nothing I can counter that with," Bavuma had said at a sponsor event in Cape Town on January 24, although by then he knew his place was safe. De Villiers had ruled himself out of Test cricket for the majority of 2017 in an effort to make the 2019 World Cup.
Still, underperforming was no longer acceptable for the first black African batsman to represent the country in the longest format. "I've spoken to people who are quite close to me," Bavuma said "And they keep saying I'm not out of form and that I'm playing well. But my feeling is that you can't be playing well and not scoring runs. I've had time to reflect on the Sri Lankan series, and I don't think there's anything technical that stands out. It's probably more from a mental point of view. That's the biggest thing for me."
Bavuma did some work with South Africa's batting coach and former team-mate Neil McKenzie. "He has been with me from the beginning and probably knows my game better than I do. He's a deep thinker on the game. He's always asking you questions and getting you to think the right things about your game."
Slowly, there was an improvement. Bavuma scored a half-century in a first-class game for the Lions and another in a List A match and although the runs were not raining down, he arrived in New Zealand in better frame of mind and it showed. He struck his first half-century in four months at Dunedin, and shared in a 104-run fifth-wicket stand with Dean Elgar to take South Africa from a slightly shaky 148 for 4 to a more stable 252 for 5. During the match, Elgar said it was the best he had seen Bavuma bat and the man admitted he felt more confident in his own ability.
"I do feel that I was able to get some kind of batting rhythm," Bavuma said in Wellington seven weeks after voicing concerns over his form in Cape Town. "Mentally, it was just being up for the fight, understanding that there will be pressure situations and just trying to find a way to get through those."
The next challenge was pushing on. "Obviously one is never happy, never satisfied with getting a fifty or a sixty, we know that for the team, especially batting in the middle order, we've got to get those big runs to put the team in a strong position. I will just try and build on that and not sleep on what happened in Dunedin."
Batting at No. 6, Bavuma might not always get the opportunity to go big. His value is instead measured in the type of runs he provides and the situations in which he scores them. In Perth, Hobart and Dunedin, Bavuma's efforts came when South Africa needed them the most and although he recognised his contribution to the cause, he remained hard on himself.
"Stats are a big part of cricket, especially as a batter," he said. "At the end of the day, you are judged on your stats. My mentality is always to try and contribute to the team but there is that fine balance of making sure your numbers are also in order. That's probably the most disappointing thing thus far with my international career. I have contributed to the side but probably my numbers don't justify all of that."
After 18 Tests, Bavuma's average is a smidge over 30 and he only has one hundred to his name but he has some time on his side. There are three Test series - the current one in New Zealand, a four-Test tour of England and two matches against Bangladesh at home in September-October - before de Villiers' proposed return and you can be sure no-one is more aware of that than Bavuma.