Earlier this year I noticed a strange cricketing trend: over the last decade, the Test teams most likely to be shot out for under 100 were not underachievers like the West Indies or relative minnows Bangladesh. Instead, the most implosion-prone batting lineups on the planet were South African and Australian.
I examined this peculiar statistical blip in an article for The Cricket Monthly, and, unsurprisingly, found a few culprits: when a team crumbles for less than 100, a lot of things have gone badly wrong. But one of the most common factors I found was a weak link at No.6 in the batting order.
In this era of fluid batting orders and big-hitting all-rounders floating around between No.5 and the tail, it’s easy to forget that, for most of Test history, No.6 has been a specialist position. That’s because the player who walks out at four down needs an unusual combination of gifts: the shots and aggression to accelerate and drive home a winning position, but also the technique and restraint of an opening batsman as he sees off the second new ball. Or, in the case of a nightmare collapse, the first new ball…
During sub-100 implosions, I found, South African and Australian No.6’s weren’t even trying to play conservatively, instead throwing the bat at everything in their half. The results were dismal.
Of course, we’re not talking about huge numbers of Tests: the Proteas have collapsed for under 100 on only four occasions since readmission. But the accelerating frequency of those collapses – one in 2006, then 2011, then 2015 and 2016 – seemed to hint at a trend.
Since I wrote that piece, the Proteas haven’t crumbled to a sub-100 total again. And yet the last eighteen months have been fraught with top- and middle-order collapses. Stiaan van Zyl, Stephen Cook and JP Duminy have all been axed precisely because the Proteas have found themselves at 50 for 4 far too many times in recent series.
So why haven’t the Proteas slumped to the humiliation of a double-digit total since then?
The answer, I believe, stands 5-foot-and-change, has the heart of a heavyweight boxer, and, when needed, a bat as wide as a barn door.
a proper Test batsman
I’ve been a fan of Bavuma’s since his debut. As cricket is slowly eroded by a preference for can’t-be-arsed T20 tonkers with iffish technique and the attention spans of goldfish, Bavuma is a proper Test batsman: calm, organized, patient, and possessing some beautiful shots he keeps under strict control. In the field, he sparkles with the same magic that illuminated Jonty Rhodes, reminding us that this is all supposed to be fun while still giving the impression that a miracle catch or cobra-strike run-out are never far away.
The trouble with comparing him to Rhodes, however, is that you also have to acknowledge one unflattering similarity: like Rhodes, Bavuma doesn’t score enough runs.
This week, when he scored his 1,000th Test run, many of his admirers were quick to point out that he had reached the milestone in 35 innings, one fewer than it had taken the mighty Jacques Kallis to reach the same tally.
They meant well, and I know what they were trying to say, but Bavuma can do without those sorts of compliments. Kallis had perhaps the worst start to his international career of any South African batsman in Test history, and they’re really not doing Bavuma any favours by pointing out that he has almost exactly replicated the Kallis trainwreck. They’re also not easing the pressure on him by cooking up statistical comparisons: Kallis reached his 2,000th run in his 55th innings, so if Bavuma is going to keep pace with the illustrious run machine, he will need to score 52 runs in every one of his next 19 innings.
look at the recent past, not the future
I understand why Bavuma’s fans are reaching for Kallis’s legacy. Even his most loyal supporters have to admit that his record looks weak. An average of 31.75 after 36 innings is low, no matter how much future greatness you invoke.
But here’s the thing. If you want to find evidence for why Bavuma should be penciled into every Proteas Test XI, you don’t need to speculate on some vague, imaginary future. You can simply point to the recent past and one undeniable fact: when South Africa is under the hammer in a Test match, Bavuma is already a star.
This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s watched any cricket over the last 18 months.
The Proteas are 32 for 4 in their first innings at Perth when Bavuma walks in. His 51 nurses them to 242. The Proteas stay in the game, then win it.
Ten days later, in Hobart, South Africa have shot out Australia for 85 but they’re also folding fast, losing 4 for 33 to find themselves on 76 for 4. Bavuma puts his back to the castle door, grips his axe with both hands, and survives for 204 balls. The Proteas win.
Wellington: the Black Caps have put up 268 in their first dig, not a great total but still, it seems, a winning one as the Proteas fold to 79 for 5. Bavuma does a Gandalf (“You! Shall Not! Pass!”) and makes a patient 89. The Proteas post 359, and go on to win the Test.
Even Monday’s grim loss at The Oval might have been grimmer without Bavuma.
At 47 for 4 in their first innings and with England making the ball do obscene things under grey skies, South Africa were in real danger of being shot out for under 100 and forced to follow on with three days still to play. But Bavuma’s unflustered rearguard stands with Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel took the Proteas to the relative calm of the next morning with its blue skies and easier conditions. Dean Elgar has been rightly praised for his heroic, bloody-minded hundred, but it was Bavuma who took the Oval Test into a fourth and fifth day.
why is he averaging just 31?
Clearly, Temba Bavuma is a man with the temperament and the technique for hard-fought, bare-knuckle Test cricket. So why is he averaging just 31?
I had a look at his stats and I was surprised by what I found.
In the last decade, in all Test matches, the fourth wicket has fallen, on average, with the score on 166. This fairly middling number would probably feel right to most fans: if your No.6 is taking guard at 160 for 4 in the first innings, you’d be hesitant to put a lot of money on the result either way. It’s fairly solid, but 160 for 4 could become 160 for 5…
Not surprisingly, the fourth wicket falls earlier for losing teams and much later for winning ones. In the last ten years, losing teams have found themselves, on average, at 112/4, while teams that have gone on to win have averaged 207/4.
So, using the figures above, let’s extrapolate a variety of match situations that your average No.6 might walk out into at the fall of the fourth wicket:
0/4 to 60/4: a complete disaster; heroic defence, hard work and plenty of luck required to avoid a major defeat.
70/4 to 130/4: deep trouble. Requires intense discipline; defeat still the most likely option.
140/4 to 180/4: solid; probably safe for now; can’t afford mistakes but potential to kick on and start dictating terms.
190/4 to 230/4: safe, en route to a winning total. Batsmen who apply themselves can make plenty.
240/4 and up: dominance, very little pressure on batsmen. Help yourself.
You’d expect Bavuma to have experienced all of these situations in more or less equal measure. But that was the first surprise.
rampant or wretched
Of his 34 innings in the middle order (he’s opened twice), just six have started with the Proteas in that “average” range. Which means that, in general, Bavuma walks to the crease with his team in one of two positions: rampant or wretched.
The second surprise was how Bavuma responds to those two match situations.
The history of Test cricket is pretty clear about what we can expect in both scenarios. It’s Batting 101. If you come in at 50/4, you’re facing fresh, fired-up bowlers, a hard ball and enormous pressure. Scoring runs is going to be difficult. Conversely, if you come in at 300/4, the bowlers are exhausted and demoralized, the ball is a hacky-sack, and there’s no pressure. It’s a buffet. Tuck in.
According to the fundamental physics of batting, Bavuma should be struggling when things are tough, and piling in when the going is good. Except he isn’t. Present him with a buffet, and he gets instant indigestion.
Bavuma has taken guard in a number of favourable match situations, ranging from 136/3 right up to a fantastically luxurious 439/4. His average in those innings? A paltry 23.66.
But even that figure is flattering, bolstered by just one innings: the unbeaten 102 he carved off an exhausted England at Newlands in 2016. Remove that outlier, and his average in cushy match situations plunges to an appalling 15.
So why do I remain a Bavuma fan? Simple. It’s because of what he does when things are falling apart and otherwise steady men are losing their heads.
Bavuma has taken guard 15 times with the Proteas either turning their canoe towards Shit Creek (70/4 to 130/4), or with them far up it, sans the proverbial paddle (69/4 and worse). In a couple of those he was batting at 7, moved down the order by night watchmen, but the situation was no prettier: his innings at No.7 have started at 136/5 and the ludicrously terribly 79/5.
His average in these trainwrecks?
That’s a healthy Test average anywhere, in any game situation. But when the team is facing certain disaster? Pure gold.
Test cricket’s name is not idly chosen. The most elevated, difficult and complex form of the game is a test of technique, of psychological strength and of character. And when the questions being asked are at their toughest, Temba Bavuma stands tall and answers them with a straight bat.
I don’t know why Bavuma isn’t scoring when the table is laid and he is invited to gorge on runs. It’s possible that he believes that his role in the team is a fundamentally defensive one, and that when the top order has done its job he is somewhat surplus to requirements. Perhaps, when the stakes feels fractionally lower, he lets his focus slip, or isn’t sure how to pace an innings when he doesn’t have to fight for every run.
Whatever the reason, Bavuma is too good and focused a player not to find a solution. Every Test he plays, he understands his game a little better and comes closer to figuring out how to accept bowlers’ charity. And when he learns how to turn his cool, methodical mind and method towards domination as well as defence, he could yet be something very special indeed.