Between rock and a hard place at No 4
Taking the spot left vacant by AB would test the most talented
● The last question was answered with the same seriousness and thoughtfulness as all the others. A recording device was turned off. The interview was over.
In that twilight zone between what’s on the record and what’s off, when all that’s left to say is thank you and goodbye, interviewees are often disarmingly honest with their interviewers.
So it was that we agreed, sitting on the boundary at the Oval in London on a bright afternoon just about a year ago, that it would be good if, one day, what was said and written about him could be concerned with cricket and nothing else.
One day, maybe . . .
That day might have dawned in Galle on Friday, just less than half-an-hour after the start of the second day’s play in the first test.
The moment was heralded when Dean Elgar tried to force Dilruwan Perera, the offspinner, through mid-on and instead steered a wretched edge to first slip.
Come in South Africa’s new No 4, your time is up.
With that Temba Bavuma, the immediate successor in that key position to AB de Villiers, who followed Jacques Kallis, whose predecessors include Daryll Cullinan, Graeme Pollock, and Dave and Dudley Nourse rose and took the next few steps in his complex journey as a cricketer and a South African in an age when sport and society are more intertwined than ever.
Bavuma is always black.
Sometimes he is also a black batsman. But, in the South African consciousness, he is never allowed to be simply a batsman.
Perhaps the closest he has come, so far, to that state of grace was on Friday, when all that mattered was how the hell anyone — black, white, whatever — could fill the giant hole De Villiers left.
For once, it was all about sport.
Bavuma tried hard to answer that question in the 33 deliveries he faced, a promising innings that ended when he swept once too often — and that time raggedly — at Lakshan Sandakan, the left-arm wrist spinner. The ball jagged off his sidewinding bat onto his stumps: gone for 17.
Only Faf du Plessis, Vernon Philander and Hashim Amla faced more deliveries than Bavuma and only Du Plessis and Philander scored more runs in what became, at that point, South Africa’s lowest total in Sri Lanka: 126.
But only Bavuma had to bat between the rock and the hard place that is No 4.
What’s that like?
“There’s no real difference between batting at No 3, 4, 5 or 6. It’s more about summing up the situation and playing according to that, whether it is attacking or playing defensively to take the game forward.”
That’s Kallis. Having had more innings at No 4 — 170 — and scored more runs in that position — 9 033 — than any other South African, he should know.
Peter Kirsten, who had 10 of his 22 test innings at No 4, offered a holistic view: “It’s normally reserved for your most effective batsman; I would say the genius type — like Graeme Pollock and AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis.
“Batting at No 4 allows you to display all your defensive and attacking talents.
“In AB’s case it was about keeping the scoring rate high. Pollock was the same, Kallis was different, and Joe Root does that well for England.
“It’s about enabling your most gifted batsman to try and get the innings going after the loss of two early or two later wickets.”
Was Bavuma, whose technique and temperament are solid but needs to show more enterprise at the crease, a good fit for the job?
It’s about enabling your most gifted batsman to get the innings going after the loss of two Peter Kirsten Former No 4 batsman
“Nobody’s going to be able to emulate AB or Graeme Pollock,” Kirsten said.
“So Temba’s got a hell of a job to do, but he’s been playing well and no one should compare him to those guys, especially AB, who leaves a huge gap.
“Temba has a good stance and he’s very stable at the crease, but he doesn’t have the array of shots that AB had — nobody does.” If not Bavuma, who?
“Somebody’s got to try and display a little bit of flair,” Kirsten said. “Faf could do it. Hashim now becomes the key, with his genius.
“I would look to put Faf at 4 and Temba at 5, or maybe Hashim at 4.”
Bavuma and everyone who dares to play cricket at a level where their performances are analysed by many they will never meet know that they will have to answer many questions like those put by Kirsten, and keep answering them in a manner that satisfies more often than not.
That comes with the territory wherever you bat, and whichever team you’re part of. But, as South Africans focus on their new No 4, one match into his tenure, they must give him room to breathe.
And deserve his chance to be a batsman. Nothing more, nothing less.
On Friday against Sri Lanka, Temba Bavuma played a sweep shot that led to his dismissal by Lakshan Sandakan. It happened in his first match at No 4 as the successor to the great AB de Villiers in that crucial position in the batting order.