Be­tween rock and a hard place at No 4

Tak­ing the spot left va­cant by AB would test the most tal­ented

Sunday Times - - Sport Cricket/tennis - By TELFORD VICE

● 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.

Pic­ture: Esa Alexan­der

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.

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