February 11, 1990 was a momentous day in world’s history, and specifically South Africa’s. After 27 years, the great Nelson Mandela was officially released from prison, bringing to end the vile and brutal practices of Apartheid and setting the wheels in motion towards a united South Africa where one is not judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character. Tambe Bavuma was still in his mother’s womb.
After 20-odd years of isolation from international cricket, the newly reunited South Africa was reintegrated back in to the cricket fraternity in November 1991. Today, more than 24 years after that February day, at St. George’s Park in Port Elizabeth, the 24-year-old Bavuma walked on to the turf to be the first black South African batsman.
The five foot and change Bavuma–the shortest of all current international cricketers–strode out to the PE band playing merrily, welcoming him on the momentous occasion to face Jason Holder who, barring Pakistan’s Mohammed Irfan, is possibly the tallest active fast bowler in cricket. The vertical contrast could not be starker. Facing his first ball, Bavuma calmly glided the length delivery through the vacant third slip for a four and just like that, he was etched in to the history books.
Though many non-white players, both batters and bowlers, have played for South Africa since its readmission, the largest racial entity of the country – black Africans – has been disproportionately underrepresented over the years. The reasons for it are manifold; from a lack of facilities in the black neighborhoods to a lack of role models to questionable selection policies. The only five black players to represent South Africa in Tests are Makhaya Ntini, Monde Zondeki, Mfuneko Ngam, Lonwabo Tsotsobe – all bowlers and Thami Tsolekile, a wicket keeper, none of them a ‘proper’ batsman.
Being the first of anything brings its share of expectations, and the pressure to perform: to show that you have earned it, to prove that you have got there on merit and not because you happen to be black. Bavuma averages more than 35 in first class with eight 100’s and 14 fifties in 116 innings, and over 40 for his franchise, Highveld Lions. He scored a massive 162 against Australia A at Townsville earlier this year, setting up an easy victory for South Africa A. As the reserve in the squad for the first Test at Centurion, he fielded here, there, and everywhere. Clearly, the man brings something to the team, and most definitely, he can bat.
As he stood at the non-striker end to watch a loud appeal by Jerome Taylor turned down as AB de Villiers missed a whip to the onside, and fail again in the attempt and have his off stump uprooted, Bavuma avoided that mistake and played with a straight bat. With the relatively new ball swinging under grey skies and Taylor generating good pace, Bavuma, ball after ball, offered the broadest of bats to keep thwarting the bowler.
Short men generally make for attractive batsmen. The lower center of gravity allows them to shift their balance forward or back with ease. With the West Indian bowlers probing away with fuller deliveries, Bavuma patiently defied them for a while.
Bavuma had said before the Test that he was aware of the pressures of becoming the first black African batsman for South Africa, and that he wasn’t just playing for himself but also representing a whole community. Perhaps that was on his mind as he cautiously placed one brick over another, re-establishing the South African innings as well as showcasing his credentials to the wider world for the first time.
On the 34th delivery he faced, he appeared to be in trouble with Shannon Gabriel testing him with the bounce after a sequence of pitched up deliveries. He appeared to handle it uncomfortably, streakily guiding the ball through slips. The next delivery was directed well and even as Bavuma tried to ride the bounce, the ball grazed his glove to settle in Denesh Ramdin’s mitts. The young man, now a Test cricketer, walked off the field.
For people from his community, it has always been about the opportunity, an opportunity to show what they can do. Let’s hope he gets another opportunity to bat again in this match and at Newlands.
A history making innings was cut short for 10 here at St. George’s Park, but his story will live on.