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Temba Bavuma bounces back from T20 World Cup to show his true credentials

New Test captain delivers series-sealing knock to restore feelgood factor to South Africa

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Temba Bavuma slaps one away, South Africa vs West Indies, 2nd Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day, March 10, 2023

Temba Bavuma dug deep to deliver the captain's performance required for his team  •  Gallo Images

The Temba Bavuma who returned home from Australia at the start of the summer, after South Africa's exit from the T20I World Cup at the hands of the Netherlands, was so distraught he could not even look up. Not directly at the people who were present at one of the first live press conferences of the post-Covid era. And nor at the Zoom screen either, where several squares stared at him, waiting for answers to a question no-one could answer: how had South Africa slipped that far?
If you had said to that Bavuma that, four months and one chastening series loss to Australia later, he himself would be orchestrating a feel-good series win against West Indies - both as Test captain and as Player of the Match in the series decider - he may have praised your imagination. But that is exactly the kind of magic turnaround cricket sometimes provides.
This time, Bavuma could look every fan in the eye in the Wanderers crowd - admittedly there weren't many of them, given that the Test started mid-week and ended midway through Saturday - and with a smile after his series-defining century in his first rubber as captain. It turned out that four months is a long time in cricket, long enough for a complete turnaround for a player and a team that had been spiralling.
"What happened in Australia took place a long time ago," Bavuma said after his side's 284-run victory. "What happened in the T20 World Cup, it's in the past now. It's happened and I've moved on from it. I'm here now and my mind is in a different space now."
Bavuma had to return to Australia after that defeat, for a Test series in which South Africa had been lucky to lose just 2-0, and in which they had extended their stretch of sub-200 to seven successive innings. He was at least South Africa's leading run-scorer in that series, with 185 runs at 37.00 with a solitary fifty, but finished below three Australian batters.
The series was chastening for a team that had previously won three successive series in Australia but Bavuma took it as a teachable moment and wanted to come back better. "It was tough in Australia and as players, we were all under pressure," he said. "There were things that I learned in Australia and when I returned from the tour, I sat down and thought through them. I looked at where I needed to improve my game and I hope the results were there for everyone to see."
A key criticism of Bavuma over time had been his strike rate. In T20Is, it is considered too low for him to even make the team, and he has since been dropped after standing down as captain; and in Tests it was also sluggish enough for it to be cited as one of the reasons he had only scored one century in 54 appearances prior to this series. Despite that, South Africa's new Test coach, Shukri Conrad, saw something in Bavuma that he liked and decided he was the man to captain the Test side - a factor in his relinquishing of the T20I reins to concentrate on the formats he is strongest at.
Bavuma is now the face of a new South African Test outfit - albeit one that will not play again until December against India - and has the support of his dressing room. They've had to work through the sacking of Dean Elgar, who continues to open the batting and has been re-contracted for the 2023-24 summer. Conrad conceded that Elgar's demotion was an issue that would require sensitive handling, but insisted that South Africa have moved on.
"It's no secret where the side has come from. Australia was really dark," Conrad said. "We spoke honestly and candidly about Dean [Elgar] no longer being the captain. That's the only way one moves on. Dean also appreciated that. For Temba to step up the way he has ... we've also got key guys in that changeroom who perform leadership roles without being at the forefront of team conversations. The fundamentals and the cornerstones are there for this team to grow from a culture point of view."
Bavuma's impact on the Test team was seen everywhere, from the way Wiaan Mulder celebrated his century on the third afternoon - leaping and fist-bumping as though he had brought up the hundred himself - to the way the support staff continue to back Bavuma. "Thankfully the cameras weren't in the coaches' room because there were some other wild scenes," Conrad said. "But all the guys lauded him. With all the stick he gets, that was a hell of a knock."
Never one to expect too much praise, Bavuma swiftly deflected attention to the player of the series, Aiden Markram, who returned to the Test side to score a century at SuperSport Park and fell four short of doubling up at the Wanderers. "A guy like Aiden coming back into the team and leading the way" Bavuma said. "He was the difference between the batters in this series."
In the end, Bavuma's 172 was the difference in the second Test and signalled a second coming for a batter and a leader who has always been under pressure because he is the first of his kind. Bavuma is South Africa's first black African batter and captain and he has now established himself as the person to take the Test game forward.
"As a leader you want to lead from the front," he said. "Me being a batter, it's at the top of my mind that I want to score runs. And I want to be able to speak with good authority in the dressing-room. This Test, things went my way. It's unfortunate that we are only playing our next game in December. We need to make sure we keep ourselves in check and make sure our cricket is going in the direction we want it to go."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket