The complicated case of Temba Bavuma, and non-performing captains

How important are captains in cricket? But also, what happens when a World-Cup endangering slump in form meets complex socio-political nuances?

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
The weight on Temba Bavuma's shoulder is unlike what any other player carries in this tournament. And it's built up to such levels thanks to a perfect storm of cricket's archaic power structures and the complex socio-political realities of South Africa.
We will get to the scope of captaincy in due course, but first, its roots, which can be traced back to when the amateurs - often batters of varying skill levels - would almost always lead the professionals. The upper classes used this construct to maintain their superiority over the rest, who dared to ask for money for their time. The horror. How could such people be entrusted with the spirit of the game?
Times have changed: while captains are still the face of their team and in many teams still get a suite while others board in standard rooms, the primacy of a captain is now questioned more often than it used to be. Especially when the said captain is not pulling their weight with their cricketing skill. There will never be another Mike Brearley.
However, do you aggressively challenge the originally upper-class English construct of the supreme captain when, for a change, the person probably benefitting from it is the first Black African man to lead South Africa in international cricket?
Let's get one thing clear first. Bavuma did not get the captaincy because he is a Black man. In fact he took a thorny crown when leadership in the sinking ship of South African cricket was scarce. He shepherded the team with firmness and with grace when Quinton de Kock refused to take the knee at the last Men's T20 World Cup. He then welcomed de Kock back into the fold. He was an accomplished leader at domestic levels. As for his current competitors for a spot in the XI, Rilee Rossouw had gone Kolpak back then, and Reeza Hendricks was yet to have his best year in T20 cricket.
Bavuma may not have got the captaincy because of his race, but race becomes an important consideration when deciding his future as a T20 player and captain. Admittedly, Bavuma is not the only T20I captain struggling at the moment, but Aaron Finch definitely and Kane Williamson arguably have better T20 pedigree and can be backed to bounce back. Bavuma's T20I strike rate is 115, and he is keeping out another player of colour in Hendricks, who is having a cracker of a year in T20s with an average of 42 and a strike rate of 144.
Bavuma may not have got the captaincy because of his race, but race becomes an important consideration when deciding his future as a T20 player and captain
Then again, cricket has always been weird when it comes to dealing with non-performing captains. Once the XV is selected and the reins have been handed over to the captain, it is really up to them to drop themselves. Coaches know better than to be forceful. More so in Bavuma's case. It is not unimaginable that there will be extra motivation for selectors to stick with him and for him to fight on because there is a stereotype to be beaten that Black Africans are not natural leaders.
Not that any leader wants to second-guess themselves. They don't make it all the way to international cricket by doubting their prowess. You wonder, though, if one or more of Bavuma, Finch and Williamson doesn't quietly wish that the decision was taken out of his hands. The bigger matches of this T20 World Cup are yet to come, and they don't want to get stuck in the middle where they can neither hit out nor get out in order for other hitters to maximise their time at the wicket.
It can be a lonely place trying to decide whether you should be playing yourself. Bavuma is hopefully keeping good counsel. Dropping yourself can be a sign of weakness, the opposite of elite competitors' instinct. At the same time, you have to think of the player sitting out and what he can bring to the team.
Some say that this pruning of the XV to XI is the most important job of a captain, but the job itself doesn't come properly described. At modern amateur levels, the captain creates a WhatsApp group, finds fixtures, gets enough players to commit, follows up with them on team dues, and only then thinks of batting orders and bowling changes. They often don't have to select an XI because frequently only that many turn up even when more have confirmed in.
The role definition of the captain at professional levels is less clear. Some teams tend to hand over full control to them - selectors listen to them when picking the XV, they also pick the XI and run the game - while some only give them the control on the field. At the elite level of the modern game though, plans on the field are mostly pre-decided, the longer the format the more the team's fate depends on the fitness and depth of its bowling attack, players have become more and more responsible for themselves, and coaches and support staff are playing a bigger role in running T20s.
There remain the hollow parts of the job description such as maintaining good body language, shaping the team in their own image et cetera, but leaving all of it aside, the fact remains we still like the idea of one boss with whom the buck stops. In cricket, this is the captain: they front up when the team loses, and take credit for the wins. It possibly makes sense too, because the coach doesn't really experience the conditions out in the middle, and that feel for the game is important to make crucial decisions. In it lies the assumption that say a Keshav Maharaj, as vice-captain, cannot make those decisions, but if Maharaj is made the captain, the next person in line can't make these decisions. And in it lies the assumption that those decisions are more crucial than runs and wickets.
It might not be ideal - perhaps it's too disruptive - to do this in the middle of a big tournament, but this is a conversation cricket needs to have: how important is captaincy? There is no data to measure the impact of captaincy. To attribute a team's win-loss record to a captain is cricket's oldest problem: it doesn't take into account the strength of the team or the opposition, and leaves undue credit and criticism at the captain's door.
If it feels outlandish - if anything feels outlandish - always think, 'What would Sri Lanka have done?' They had a leadership group - Sangakkara, Jayawardene, and then Mathews was added into the mix - and who actually captained didn't matter that much. They once changed captains mid-tournament to avoid an over-rate penalty. They won a T20 World Cup with Lasith Malinga as captain, and he was handed the reins in the first place because the regular captain Dinesh Chandimal was done in by a slow over-rate penalty and then couldn't regain his place in the side.
Now that the ICC has discontinued the old tradition of banning captains because of over rates, here's another thought: what would that canny Sri Lankan side have done if they had an under-performing captain keeping a better option out of the XI?

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo