Bavuma warrants some ‘Jonty’ leeway

2018-01-03 12:15
Temba Bavuma (Gallo)

Cape Town – South Africa were loyal, pretty steadfastly, to that bundle of energy Jonty Rhodes in the Test arena.

Isn’t Temba Bavuma a similar model of broad effervescence to the Proteas’ cause, and deserving parallel treatment?

It is something that should be considered, beyond merely statistical batting data, if Bavuma is going to be the sacrifice should the brains trust wish for a five-strong attack – coach Ottis Gibson has been hinting along those lines this week -- in the first Test against India at Newlands from Friday.

Under that structure, the hosts will be deploying only six out-and-out batsmen, and with both Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock passed fit, there is thus going to have to be one high-profile “sit out” stroke-player.

On a numbers basis, Bavuma is understandably vulnerable: any batsman averaging an unremarkable 33.13 after 27 Tests for a top-tier nation would be, and we have to keep that in mind even as certain political ripples may well accompany any decision to omit him.

Put it this way: considerably more frightful selection decisions will have been made in international cricket.

But the tenacious little 27-year-old is also more than just a moderate-firing member, as things stand, of the SA Test middle-order.

There is a slightly bigger picture to contemplate as well.

The Proteas are desperate to reinvent themselves as one of the premier fielding forces in world cricket after a spell stretching back two or three years, at least, in which standards have notably slipped and other nations hurdled them.

Restoring “normal service” in that department has clearly been a major goal of Gibson’s – still in his formative period as national coach – given that he has latched a specialist fielding assistant, Justin Ontong, onto his back-up staff.

Bavuma and AB de Villiers are arguably the two premier fielders in the current Test squad ranks, albeit that the latter is now nearly 34, inevitably shedding just a fraction of his famed mobility and reaction time as a result, and occasionally saddled with emergency wicketkeeping needs, too.

Observers used to argue, not without merit, that Rhodes would effectively add at least 10 or 15 runs to his often far from special Test batting average (career 35.66 after 52 Tests over a nine-year period) through his amazing agility and industry in the field, which went a long way to justifying his longevity and consistent selection for the Test XI.

Whilst Bavuma may fall just a wee bit behind Rhodes – and almost every cricketer in global history does – for sheer quality as a fielder, he is really not far behind at all, and increasingly asserting himself as a real “personality” in that area for the Proteas.

So if you axe Bavuma, you are making a certain, noticeable sacrifice to your broad fielding prowess, which is not something the current SA regime wants.

After all, the pint-sized athlete now sports every bit as iconic a “magical moment”, if you like, in the field as one or two of Rhodes’ best efforts – and the latter’s often best remembered in the one-day international arena.

This refers, of course, to Bavuma’s incredible, virtually one-motion, pick-up and throw while airborne to run out Australian kingpin David Warner by a whisker in the second innings of the first Test at Perth last season.

The Aussies, in pursuit of a formidable target of 539, had gone past the 50-mark unimpeded and with Warner looking especially threatening on 35 when Bavuma pounced to stick a key knife into the Baggy Greens’ heart, en route to the tourists’ eventual triumph by 177 runs.

Often a snarling, particularly belligerent foe, Warner had the grace to brand Bavuma’s act “phenomenal” afterwards.

Perhaps also not to be overlooked is that there is another, smaller but not completely inconsequential string to Bavuma’s admirably determined bow: he has shown that he is far from the worst, nagging medium-paced bowler at Test level in a time of crisis.

Those calling for his head in the Newlands Test, even if many probably do so with some reluctance, might also ask themselves whether they were as vociferous in wishing for Rhodes’ omission -- albeit in a different and now fairly distant time -- after as many Tests as Bavuma has had.

When Rhodes had also completed 27 Test matches, his batting performance was slightly below Bavuma’s – 1,223 runs at 32.18.

Emboldened by the expanded wisdom that accompanies mounting experience, admittedly Rhodes bucked up his act in the later period of his Test life, to the extent that he averaged almost 50 in his closing three years or thereabouts and ended with a better career figure of 35.66 as his average.

Any special reasons why Bavuma shouldn’t savour that northward phenomenon as well?

Considering the similarities in their general makeups, including hyper-energy as fieldsmen and a “busy”, gritty rather than especially dominating nature at the crease, I’d argue not.

Sitting Temba out?

It ain’t quite as straightforward as some many think.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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