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Bavuma's giant leap

The South African batsman talks us through his landmark hundred at Newlands against England, an inspiration to an emerging generation of South African players

Luke Alfred
Temba Bavuma celebrates his century, South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 4th day, January 5, 2016

Temba Bavuma celebrates his century at Newlands, the first by a black South African in 226 Tests since readmission  •  AFP

When Temba Bavuma was a boy, he was asked where he thought he'd be in 15 years' time. He thought about it, sat down, and wrote that when he grew up he wanted to become an accountant, play cricket for South Africa and shake the president's hand - not necessarily in that order.
His chutzpah found favour because his answer was included in the pages of that year's school magazine. "The whole tone of it was quite cocky and arrogant," he says now.
On January 5 this year Bavuma scored a century in the second Test against England, at Newlands, an achievement that trumped, by some margin, his stated three intentions as a Grade 6 pupil at SACS Junior School in Cape Town all those years ago. It was an innings widely but shallowly celebrated, partly because the significance of milestones such as these only becomes clearer with time. Partly, though, it was an event of such magnitude that it was impossible to wrap one's head around it. This year is the 25th anniversary of South Africa's readmission to international cricket, and in that time no black cricketer from the country had come close to scoring a Test hundred. The previous best was Monde Zondeki's cavalier 59 against England at Headingley in 2003.
There are many reasons for the conspicuous lack of tonnage, some obvious, some opaque. One is the comparative withdrawal of the development programme initiated by Ali Bacher, both continued and allowed to fall into disrepair under former Cricket South Africa CEO Gerald Majola. Another is the government's retreat from the township schools and the hand-wringing that invariably accompanies any request for their vision or money. Then there are the intangibles. What barriers, real and imagined, plague black South African batsmen? And without a culture of local batting heroes, how can doubts over spirit and history be erased and overcome?
"'You are so shit, I don't know what you are doing here,' Stokes said to me. If he'd said that earlier, it wouldn't have made a difference, but after that I just decided I was going to play because it stung a bit"
Despite its world-historical flavour, Bavuma's innings also owed as much as any other to the magic weave of circumstance. When on 8, he was so pumped up after a sledge from Ben Stokes that his first fifty came in a swift swift blur of 11 fours. His second fifty was more sedate. The scoreboard's shadow started to weigh him down and, when in his 80s, he was haunted by Stuart Broad, losing both composure and his normally trustworthy sense of where exactly his off stump stood.
Bavuma was not feeling good after South Africa's defeat in the first Test, at Kingsmead. He and Dale Steyn took an early flight out of Durban only hours after the close and his scores of 0 and 10 in the 241-run defeat were still wedged uncomfortably in his head. He sought the sanctuary of his grandmother's home in the Cape Town township of Langa, and 24 hours later, had friends around for a New Year's Eve braai.
For all the succour of the township, he was bothered, fearing that he might lose his place in the Test team. In the end, the selectors bravely decided to drop JP Duminy, and Bavuma kept his place, at least for another Test. "I've never admitted this, but I was feeling the pressure. I needed to repay their favour. I thought to myself that this could be the end of Temba Bavuma."
Bavuma is a teetotaller and his mates celebrated the arrival of the new year in various states of intoxication. His father made it clear that he thought Bavuma should be celebrating at the South African team hotel. Every time someone brought up the subject of cricket, Bavuma padded it away. South Africa trained the following morning amid the intense, slightly irritable scrutiny that follows disappointment. "The session was hectic because all the selectors were there," Bavuma says. "Ashwell [Prince] and Hussein Manack were at practice and so was Graeme Smith. They were all throwing their two cents around, if I can say that."
Despite the scrutiny, Bavuma managed to chat with Prince, a player he has always admired. It was less what Prince said than the tone of his words that inspired him. "My confidence was sleeping until I spoke to Ashwell - it awoke something in me," he says. "I've always been able to relate to him. He told me that they're [England] not world-class and we shouldn't stand back. That gave me confidence."
If playing for his franchise, Bavuma would normally be batting by lunchtime but Test cricket requires a more careful rationing of energies. At the beginning of South Africa's chase in reply to England's 629 for 6, Bavuma slept, but when AB de Villiers was batting he watched the game on television in the dressing room. Sometimes he doesn't watch the game at all ("I don't really know why") although in this case he kept an eye on matters in the middle.
It was a long wait, through the third afternoon and well into the fourth morning. Only when Hashim Amla fell for an epic 201 after lunch did Bavuma walk to the crease to join Faf du Plessis The scoreboard clock showed 13:32, and little were the run-sated crowd to know as he scratched out his guard - middle and off to align his head with off-stump, allowing him to leave well - that they were about to witness one of the most important innings in the history of South African cricket.
"We'd decided to bat time, that's what the Test was all about," Bavuma says. "When Faf went, I felt a bit of pressure, then Quinny [Quinton de Kock] walked in calmly and with a bit of arrogance. When I felt that energy, I knew I could adopt it - I kind of sucked that into my game," Bavuma says.
De Kock didn't last long, and that brought Bavuma's domestic team-mate Chris Morris to the middle. Bavuma had by this stage opened his account, with a four off James Anderson, cuffed dismissively on the up through extra cover. "It didn't swing. I think it was probably my best shot of the day."
His next scoring shot was off Stokes. "With me, the horizontal-bat shots are generally instinctive," Bavuma says. "When he bowled it short, I hooked the ball to the right of fine leg - it was more of a glide, really, and it went for four. Then I snicked an inside edge down to fine leg for another four, which didn't please him. 'You are so shit, I don't know what you are doing here,' Stokes said to me after that second four. It's not the most creative chirp, is it? If he'd said that earlier, it wouldn't have made a difference, but after that I just decided I was going to play because it stung a bit."
Bavuma had already scored five fours within the first hour of his innings. By his own admission, he was in a bubble. The bother he felt in the days preceding the Test were beginning to fall away; Prince's pep talk had given him a fillip and Stokes' sledge had galvanised him.
He took three consecutive fours off Steven Finn to hurtle into the 30s, and he and Morris began to settle into a productive partnership. "When Finn came on I saw it as an opportunity to put someone under pressure," Bavuma says. "His pace was up there but I still felt that I could score, so a pull, a drive and a backward cut later I was in a zone. When Moeen Ali came on, I almost had to restrain myself because I was in an attacking mode and just wanted to go at everything."
In six seasons between 2004-05 and 2010-11, only six centuries were scored by black batsmen in first-class cricket - two of them by Bavuma
The first week of January is still post-Christmas holiday time in South Africa. When Bavuma came to the crease on the Tuesday, millions of people around the country were lolling around their television screens, or were on holiday at the seaside or simply enjoying a day or two of quiet leisure before returning to work. As Bavuma grew in confidence, and the watching nation sensed something special was in the offing, viewing figures began to climb.
His three fours off Finn had taken him to 35, and there he stood stranded as he defended five dot balls from Ali. Morris was unable to score off Finn's following over but then five off a Moeen over (including a four), two singles from Finn's next, and dot-dot-four-four-single off Moeen brought up Bavuma's fifty, scored in 52 balls.
Social media and the bush telegraph went to work. "On average, 26% more people watched the day's play compared to all the other days of Test cricket combined," says Kelvin Watt of Repucom, a market research agency that provides stats to CSA and other sporting federations. "The other thing that's significant was that the age demographic of the viewership on the public broadcaster and SuperSport went down by about ten years - more young people were watching the cricket."
Despite his admission that he became a little cautious after reaching his fifty, Bavuma scored fluently after tea. Two fours off Stokes in consecutive overs (no lip, this time) were interspersed with two overs in which he took three runs each off Ali.
Although England never faded, according to Bavuma, being cajoled by Jonny Bairstow and steered by Alastair Cook, it was punishingly hot in Cape Town, and they had been in the field since Sunday afternoon. A degree of drift was inevitable.
While England's thoughts would have slid towards the likelihood of having to bat again, Bavuma and Morris made merry. An over of ten runs for Morris off Moeen was matched by another productive over for Bavuma - now on 68 - off Stokes, including a two and two singles.
As viewers began to realise the possibility of Bavuma reaching his ton, the sleepiness of the late-afternoon hours began to be replaced by a different feeling, something more hopeful, with a sharper edge. It was all South Africa, as the 550 mark was passed and 600 beckoned.
Around 4pm, however, Bavuma found himself increasingly stretched. He was able to pinch the odd single, but Broad - who was brought back - shuttling himself across the breadth of the crease to subtly change the angle of delivery, had his number. "I was basically at his mercy," says Bavuma. "He was troubling me because with the angle he was bowling, the ball was holding its line and you can be vulnerable to the outside edge. I was triggering towards him and pushing into his channel but he just kept on coming. When Alastair Cook asked him if he wanted another over during the spell and he said 'No', I was almost relieved."
Looking at the scorebook through this period and it's a field of stubble - all dots and singles, singles and dots. For just over half an hour, from 3.45 to 4.17, Bavuma's innings crept painfully along, with not a boundary in sight.
The slow spell was broken by six in an over off Anderson but on 77 he snicked Broad low to Bairstow's right; the ball died on the 'keeper but hit his glove and the chance was fluffed. Buvuma knuckled down for a prolonged battle as he crept towards his hundred.
Runs were now impossible to find, and Bavuma was stranded in the wilderness. None too confidently, he played out a maiden to Broad, and then five dots to Anderson. He was now on 84 and those precious 16 runs looked an awfully long way away. He scrambled here and there but for three overs he remained on 87; for four more he was stuck on 88. Then, just after 5pm, facing Moeen, the sweet relief of a boundary, his first in 48 minutes.
When Morris departed, with Bavuma needing seven for his century, the thought of running out of partners crossed his mind when his franchise team-mate Kagiso Rabada walked in at 11 minutes past five.
Rabada took guard and batted out the four remaining deliveries of Finn's over, meaning Bavuma was on strike to Root. A dot ball was followed by a two. The third ball was safely negotiated (no run) and off the fourth, Bavuma squeezed a single to go to 96.
Rabada, still on nought, batted out the over, meaning that Bavuma was on strike to Finn. At 5.19 he went to his century with a four. Minutes later Amla, in his penultimate day as the South Africa captain, declared the innings closed on 627 for 7. Few bothered to ask if South Africa had batted for too long.
Bavuma has been making hundreds for six seasons now. His first first-class hundred - an unbeaten 152 - came for Gauteng against Easterns in Benoni in 2009-10, and the following season he made his debut franchise hundred, scoring 124 not out for Lions against Knights in Bloemfontein.
In six seasons between 2004-05 and 2010-11, according to Andrew Samson, CSA's official statistician, only six centuries were scored by black batsmen in South African first-class cricket - two of them by Bavuma - but off that small base, things have begun to change. Three were scored in 2011-12, one the following season, three the season after, six in 2014-15, and three last season. The net of those scoring hundreds has also widened. Since 2013-14, four batsmen other than Bavuma have scored first-class hundreds, including Omphile Ramela (4), Khaya Zondo (3), Thami Tsolekile (1) and Somila Seyibokwe (1).
This suggests something approaching a virtuous circle, with Bavuma at its centre. It also tells us that, like the four-minute mile, which was thought of as an almost physical barrier, the art of the four-hour hundred is best understood in mental and not physical or technical terms. In breaking the hundred barrier - in South Africa's 226th Test since readmission - Bavuma has beaten a path for others to follow, something which in time will be seen to be as precious as that elusive World Cup win.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg