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The Test hundreds may not be there, but Bavuma is close to being SA's best batter right now

Since January 2021, the Test vice-captain is the only South African to hold a 50-plus batting average

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
[File photo] Bavuma has been playing 'good cop' as Elgar's deputy in the Test side  •  AFP/Getty Images

[File photo] Bavuma has been playing 'good cop' as Elgar's deputy in the Test side  •  AFP/Getty Images

It used to be one of the most talked-about issues in South African cricket: when will Temba Bavuma score a second Test century?
After his breakthrough hundred in January 2016, six Tests into his career, Bavuma has scored 16 fifties, but has routinely run out of time or partners to convert. A critical analysis of his batting is that he scores too slowly and his career strike rate of under 48 for the first three-and-half-years underpinned that. Since then, South Africans have come to accept that maybe a batters' value, especially at home, can't be measured in centuries.
In the last eight Tests in South Africa, dating back to January 2020, there have only been two hundreds scored by their batters. And in that time, Bavuma holds the highest average by a South African player - 46. Since January 2021, he is the only South African to average 50 and thus, even though the likes of Herschelle Gibbs are still not convinced, Bavuma has earned his stripes at this level.
"It's helped that I've played a fair number of Tests, so there's an acceptance that there will be good days and there will be bad days," Bavuma said, after two days off following South Africa's innings defeat to New Zealand in the first Test. "I'm at peace with my role in the team, how I fit in. It's not just about the batting and the currency of runs, but also my presence in the team and how I contribute towards building the culture and environment. That's helped me be more at ease with where I fit into the team. It's not the case of every game is my last opportunity to cement my position."
"I understand his vision as a captain and what he would like to achieve. I back it 100%. I back him as a leader and as a player. For me, it's about trying to help and serve him as best I can so he can execute his vision for the team"
Bavuma on working as Dean Elgar's deputy
Instead, Bavuma has concentrated on things like scoring quicker. This year, though the sample size is small at three Tests, his strike rate has improved to 57. He has been part of some of the most important partnerships in the South African cause, like the match-winning 82 and 68 with Dean Elgar and Keegan Petersen respectively at the Wanderers against India, and he has often stood man-alone in collapses. He was the only South African to score more than 30 in an innings in Christchurch.
But Bavuma knows better than to celebrate his form keeping in mind the inconsistency from the line-up that continues to sparkle and then stutter as it finds its feet. "It's hard to separate the team cause from your individual cause, especially after a performance like that [in the first Test]," he said. "Where I am with my game, I think there are more positives than anything. I'm not down and out, I'm not disappointed in myself. But the team is in a space where we need someone to put up their hand. My form has been decent over the last while, but while it's still a bit of a concern for the team, I won't be fully happy with myself."
South Africa slumped to their second-biggest-ever defeat in the first Test against New Zealand and looked far from the team that chased successfully against India twice last month. No-one, not coach Mark Boucher or captain Dean Elgar, has been able to explain their lack of intensity and energy, and Bavuma wasn't even going to try. "It wasn't good enough," he said. "That's not the standard we pride ourselves on. We know we have to improve in all three disciplines."
His bluntness may be a result of his growing closeness with captain Elgar, for whom Bavuma deputises. The pair has adopted a no-nonsense approach to leadership, which they both advocate. "Our relationship has been built on honesty and not any bull***t," Bavuma said. "Dean's a very blunt type of person. If you stray, he'll call you out, and if you're good he'll let you know as well. That resonates with me."
While Elgar does not shy away from telling his players when he thinks socks need to be pulled up - Kagiso Rabada after the Boxing Day Test, for example - Bavuma plays good cop and keeps things cool, hoping that their contrasting personas will take South Africa forward in all formats.
"Being Dean's vice-captain, I'm trying to be his calming voice. Dean can be emotional at times," Bavuma said. "We work hand-in-hand with each other. I understand his vision as a captain and what he would like to achieve. I back it 100%. I back him as a leader and as a player. For me, it's about trying to help and serve him as best I can so he can execute his vision for the team. We'd like to bring respect to the Proteas badge. We'd like to leave the Proteas in a much better state than they're in, or than they were when we came in. We're there to support each other. We're in this fight together. His success is my success, and vice versa."
So far, South Africa have had no success in New Zealand. Of the seven sessions that made up the first Test, they won none, but Elgar and Bavuma don't believe that makes them a team in trouble. "You don't become a bad player because you haven't scored runs in a certain game," Bavuma argued.
If that were the case, both Elgar and Bavuma would have been labelled bad players many times, and the numbers show they are not. They are the best South Africa have got. For Bavuma, it comes down to playing with more responsibility but also knowing he occupies a senior place in the XI. "I remember as a new player coming in, the main thing you wanted was to be accepted by everybody and the best way to do that is through your performances," he said. "I'm at a point where I truly believe I'm accepted and valued in the team. That's probably the reason my performances have been good over the last while."
Now, it's for the rest of the batters to feel the same way. Sarel Erwee, who debuted in the first Test, won't because he doesn't know if he will keep the opening berth, or if it will be given back to Aiden Markram once Petersen is back. And Markram doesn't know if he is going to be dropped after averaging 9.7 in his last ten innings. Kyle Verreynne doesn't know if he will keep the wicketkeeper-batter's spot or it will go to Ryan Rickelton, who averages over 100 this season. Zubayr Hamza doesn't know if he will play as a sixth specialist batter or lose the spot to Rickelton or be benched in favour of an allrounder or spinner.
South Africa's selection decisions remain a mystery with Boucher only explaining that they do things as they "feel they need to be", with selection convener Victor Mpitsang providing answers that directly contradict what insiders at the organisation say. In South Africa's top seven, only Elgar, Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen are secure and it's no surprise that they are the most consistent run-scorers.
So the questions over when next Elgar will score a hundred - he hasn't done so in eight Tests - to if Bavuma will ever score another, to if van der Dussen will touch three figures in Tests are not nearly as important as what South Africa can do to solidify their line-up and give it long-term structure and shape. That's what they need to start answering in the second Test, and maybe the hundreds will come.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent