Temba Bavuma stays the course to deliver his definitive century
South Africa captain puts off-field emotions to one side to lead team to priceless series win
"I am still here and I still deserve to be where I am."
That's what Temba Bavuma meant when he gestured to his name on the back of his South Africa shirt and then thumped on his heart and the Protea badge as he celebrated his third ODI century.
His innings of 109 from 102 balls been described by commentators and former captains Shaun Pollock and Ashwell Prince as the best they've seen Bavuma bat in international cricket, not only because of his clean hitting and quick-scoring but because of the context this hundred came in.
Bavuma has spent the last year on an "emotional rollercoaster," with questions over his place in South Africa's white-ball sides and his ability to score quickly enough to keep up with modern batting trends. Painful, but also legitimate, questions.
Since his 110 against India in Paarl last January, Bavuma had batted in 33 international innings across all formats, scored four fifties and had been dismissed in single figures 15 times. Among those were two ducks and a 3 against India on his comeback from an elbow injury that sidelined him for three months in the lead-up to the T20 World Cup. There, he captained South Africa to an exit at the hands of Netherlands. He was subsequently snubbed at the SA20 auction and is the only member of the current squad not playing in the marquee T20 tournament, which has become the biggest party in the country's cricket. Imagine being the national white-ball captain and not invited.
"Emotionally it can be draining and it can be taxing. As much as you try to block it out, it does affect you," Bavuma said. "The biggest one is when it affects people around you - your family. As a player, I have my ways of dealing with it. It is a part of the journey."
But that doesn't mean it was easy. "We all go through periods of ups and downs, whether in our careers and family life," Bavuma said. "The difference [with professional sportspeople] is that it's in the eyes of everyone and everyone wants to have a piece of you. It's about trying to not be as emotional as you can and to see things as plainly, as they are. Blocking out the noise is something you have to do but that is quite impossible, especially me in the situation I find myself in, as the captain."
That's why Cricket South Africa offered him as much quiet time as possible. When Bavuma returned from the T20 World Cup, he, along with Kagiso Rabada, were the only two players not required to play red-ball cricket in preparation for the festive Test series against Australia, so they could take a mental-health break. Bavuma ended as South Africa's most successful batter on an otherwise disastrous tour, making 185 runs at 37.00 in the 2-0 series loss.
When he came home from that tour, Bavuma had another two weeks off before this series as the SA20 launched, and it allowed him to clear his head. "Being out of action for the last two weeks, being at home and away from the game, has also helped me," he said. "Physically, I'm maybe not in the best shape but mentally I am. I've come in a bit more open towards the team and how we would like to go about things."
He also came into an environment with a new coach (albeit only temporarily in white-ball cricket). Bavuma has worked with Shukri Conrad at domestic level. and after the pair were spotted deep in dialogue in Bloemfontein, he revealed that Conrad had helped him work through some of his doubts.
"The conversation I had with Shukri helped," Bavuma said. "It was just being vulnerable to the coach about where I see myself and how I feel about everything. He helped me clear through all the nonsense that was in my head and helped me get ready for the series."
But he wouldn't reveal too much more. "It was just him giving me an ear, hearing me out and validating the feelings that I've had. The biggest thing is getting your mind into the right state to play the game. Shuks is not a therapist. What I enjoyed was the honesty and the clarity that he gave in the chat."
Whatever was said, it obviously worked. Bavuma showed his intent in the first match, albeit he only scored 36. He made those runs, however, off 28 balls to give South Africa a good start and went on to make good tactical decisions in the field (such as holding Sisanda Magala back for the middle overs) which gave South Africa the series lead.
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Then, he brought out the big guns. Chasing a record 343 at the Mangaung Oval, Bavuma was a batter transformed. He outscored Quinton de Kock from the get-go, with with five fours and a six from his first 25 balls to assert himself with a hundred for the ages, and after overcoming a bout of cramp, a celebration to match.
"It was quite emotional getting to that moment." he said. "The celebration wasn't planned. It was a reminder to myself and to everyone that I am still here and I still deserve to be where I am."
Bavuma put his bold strokeplay down to a mindset of "looking to score, looking to dominate the bowlers," and South Africa's approach that is less about results and more about establishing a style of play that they can employ for a few years. "We've made it clear to ourselves that our focus is going to be on the process but not so much on the outcome," Bavuma said.
But the outcome for Bavuma mattered much more than he was willing to say. A self-confessed "resolute guy" who tried to "put my best foot forward", Bavuma has obviously been hurt by the events of the last year. However, he has carried himself with integrity throughout. He knows his responsibilities as the captain - and before this series said he was willing to stay on as long as he was wanted but also that he would step aside if needs be - as the country's only black African international batter and a role model to millions.
For them, he had this message: "I'm sure other people are going through what I went through. You've got to find a way to keep going forward. Don't give up. Keep going forward."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent