Feature

Temba Bavuma battling a sea of uncontrollables

Does he merit selection purely as a batter? It's a question that's followed the SA captain all through his international career, often in insinuating tones

Temba Bavuma has his focus set ahead of the first T20I against India  •  Kerala Cricket Association

Temba Bavuma has his focus set ahead of the first T20I against India  •  Kerala Cricket Association

The last time Temba Bavuma played for South Africa was in Rajkot, three months ago. He took a blow to the shoulder from a Bhuvneshwar Kumar lifter, and later in the same over hurt his elbow while diving to complete a run. He retired hurt, and the elbow injury kept him out of South Africa's next big tour, to England.
Bavuma is back now, back in India, and back to leading South Africa's T20I side. The world around him, however, isn't the same.
In the three-match T20I series against England, Rilee Rossouw made a successful return to international cricket after six years of Kolpak exile, smashing an unbeaten 96 off 55 balls in the second T20I in Cardiff and following up with 31 off 18 in the next game in Southampton. Reeza Hendricks, meanwhile, scored half-centuries in each of the three games against England, and followed up with 74 and 42 in his two innings against Ireland in Bristol.
Hendricks, Quinton de Kock and Rossouw made up South Africa's first-choice top three against England, with Rassie van der Dussen replacing Rossouw against Ireland.
Van der Dussen is injured and out of this India tour and the T20 World Cup that follows, but Bavuma is back, and South Africa still have four contenders for three top-order spots.
Bavuma is their captain, and de Kock one of the premier keeper-batters in the world. This means either Hendricks or Rossouw will have to sit out unless South Africa rest their first-choice players.
It's a difficult situation, and one that'll put Bavuma's role in the spotlight. He's used to the scrutiny, but that won't make it any less uncomfortable.
Bavuma has plenty of credit on the captaincy front, given that he has the second-best win-loss record of all captains to have led South Africa at least 10 times in T20Is. And he played a pivotal role in shepherding the team through turbulent times at last year's T20 World Cup, following de Kock's refusal to take a knee before their game against West Indies. It felt in the immediate aftermath of the incident that the team could implode; instead, they won four out of five games, missing out on the semi-finals only because of their net run rate, and successfully reintegrated a contrite de Kock.
When it came time for South Africa to pick their squad for this year's tournament in Australia, therefore, it was little surprise that they reiterated their faith in Bavuma's leadership.
But does he merit selection purely as a batter? It's a question that's followed Bavuma all through his international career, often in insinuating tones, and mostly unfairly, because he's always had the foundation of skill and temperament upon which successful Test careers are built.
But Bavuma was made white-ball captain when he hadn't yet found his feet as a white-ball batter. While his ODI record stands up to scrutiny, his T20 numbers are modest. His non-selection at the SA20 auction made for poor optics, and raised several questions - what it means for an ostensibly South African domestic tournament to have no transformation targets merits a separate piece - but you could argue that a strike rate of 124.67 after 100 games, and no secondary skill - unless you count his athleticism in the 30-yard circle - left him open to that possibility. The SA20 team owners, all of whom also own teams in the IPL, could argue that ignoring Bavuma was no different to ignoring Cheteshwar Pujara at an IPL auction.
But Pujara doesn't captain his national team in T20Is.
Bavuma does, and apart from fulfilling all the other demands of that job, he has to face up to a relentless schedule of press conferences. Less than a week ago, he had addressed one where he spoke of his disappointment at not being picked for the SA20. On Tuesday, on the eve of the first T20I in Thiruvananthapuram, he was asked if he felt he had even more to prove ahead of this series, and the World Cup, than he usually does.
"I've tried to put all those things behind me," Bavuma said. "As I said earlier, my biggest focus is on the role that I have, which is to lead and serve the team as best as I can, make sure that the guys are in the best place possible going into that big World Cup tournament. All other distractions, all other sideshows, that's stuff that I'll deal with on a personal level, but now, here, being within the team, as long as I'm still wearing that shirt, it will be to lead and serve the team as best as I can."
It's all he can do, the one relative controllable in the sea of uncontrollables that his cricketing life has often resembled.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo