Reassuring a cricketer about his value to the team is not the same as making him undroppable. The former is a good thing; the latter can have the opposite effect.
Few players are indispensable to the teams they play in, and even when they reach that status it doesn’t last forever. Not usually, anyway. Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla are the exceptions which prove the rule. They weren’t dropped for 15, 12 and 10 years respectively although Amla’s form at the end suggested it couldn’t have been far away.
Cricketers talk all the time about the importance of ‘continuity’ and the dangers of having too many players whose priority is staying in the team. It leads to the ‘just enough’ syndrome in which batsmen relax after reaching 30 or 40 and bowlers concentrate on ‘keeping it tidy’ and forego the ‘risk-reward’ approach.
But continuity has to be earned. There’s no point having it if it means continually losing. The current South African team is not only trying to find its feet on the field, they have an almost entirely new coaching and management team, too. The absence of long-time team manager, Dr Mohammad Moosajee, is being felt deeply. He wasn’t just popular and highly respected, he was superb at his job. You don’t know what you’ve got until its gone.
The main problem on the field during the first two Test matches against India has been the bowlers’ inability to dismiss India in any of the three innings in which they’ve batted. In fact, they’ve claimed just 16 out of a possible 30 wickets. (Of course, if they’d taken 10 in the first innings in Pune then there might have been 40 available.)
So either George Linde is parachuted straight into the starting XI as a like-for-like replacement for the injured Keshav Maharaj or Dane Piedt returns to partner SenuramMuthusamy in the spin department. It would be harsh on Anrich Nortje if Lungi Ngidi replaces him after just one Test match but there are still, as has been the case for six months, doubts about Ngidi’s fitness.
As is often the case with failing teams the public’s attention is drawn most prominently to the batsmen who then incur a disproportionate slice of their wrath. Theunis de Bruyn’sposition at number three is most under threat. After 11 Test matches, he averages 19.
The promotion of Temba Bavuma to both number four and the vice-captaincy may have been one of those instances of ‘reassurance’ backfiring. It was much closer to ‘undroppable’ than reassuring and that isn’t a good thing for a batsman who is not scoring the runs he needs to. Far from being freed from the need to justify his place, a batsman can become distracted and preoccupied with his lack of value.
Bavuma is 29 and has played 38 Tests with one hundred and a modest average of 31.8. And as I have been writing for much of the last three years, his average is not a fair reflection of his worth. But it’s there, staring at him like an admonishing parent.
His unbeaten 102 against England at Newlands nearly four years ago was a historic moment in SA cricket but is in danger of becoming a millstone. It wasn’t even his best innings, not by a long way. The 74 he scored in Hobart three years ago in wicked conditions contributed not only to winning the Test match but the series. And in Wellington three years ago SA were 94-6 before his 89 and a partnership of 160 with Quinton de Kock helped the Proteas win that match, too, and the series when they escaped with a draw in the third Test in Hamilton.
But the innings against England and Kagiso Rabada’s 13-144 against the same opponents in the same series produced two of the highest terrestrial television audiences ever recorded in this country, on SABC 3. That’s the kind of reality that administrators and sponsors understand.
He may only be 5’4” in his cricket socks but he’s 7’4” when it comes to facing his own reality: “I can understand the criticism that’s coming my way, as a batsman, my currency is runs and that’s what I’m judged on. It’s not as if I’m going out there and trying to nick balls or miss straight ones, the effort is there from my side. I can honestly say I’m giving it my best but, at this point in time, my best isn’t good enough,” Bavuma said last week.
He is good enough to play, and succeed, in Test cricket, I’m convinced of it. A great deal of time and resource has been invested in him and, although the returns have been sporadic so far, they will be worth the investment. But he is not a man who wants any favours. Every one of his best innings has been a dogfight in difficult conditions and circumstances. He’s a scrapper. He may just produce his best if he knows he’s fighting for his place.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to get in touch.