The corner house on Rubusana Avenue is freshly painted. The walls are white. The black looks great on the roof, door, and windows. The tiny wooden gate is black too. Smaller than the gate is a toddler staring at the house.
He puts his first finger of his left hand on the gate, to check if the paint had dried off and it hasn’t. He then extends his left thumb which to gets the paint. As he keeps looking up, he clicks with the same two fingers.
The crowd cheers coming from a distance, just minutes away from the house wakes up the kid and he runs, turns left, takes the sidewalk that opens up to the Langa Cricket Club.
Langa was the designated area for the black Africans during the apartheid. As a two-year-old, Temba Bavuma made a few detours but always found his way to the local cricket club where he watched his uncles ace the game. His uncle Tengo was the chairman for many years too.
By the time Temba Bavuma was five, he still looked two. The street opposite to his house resembled the Arun Jaitley Stadium of the fourth day. The blue plastic stumps at the striker’s end are posh compared to the yellow drum stationed at the non-striker’s end. The pitch, the asphalt road that had cracked, disintegrated and distorted, making it a bowlers paradise. Bavuma grew up being the smallest and the youngest batsman – in a street cricket batch that included a few high school goers too.
Cagew Ezra, the man who has worked tirelessly to develop cricket in the black townships had just crossed 50 when he had to drive Langa’s main team for an away fixture. Ezra had planned to put his feet up, but someone informed him that they were one player short. Batting at number 9, he walked out to meet Bavuma, looking incredibly small in the middle of the pitch adjusting the velcro on his pads. That afternoon, the youngest and the eldest member of the Langa senior team chased down a total of 280 runs and a legend was born. This was also the first time people around Bavuma started noticing the size of his heart and not just him.
Three times his size, the great Curtly Ambrose when showed up in Langa for a benefit game found a young kid trying to fix the ball in his tiny fingers. Ambrose did show him how to hold the ball. In a white T-shirt and black trousers, Bavuma is early for the ‘The Temba Bavuma Foundation’ event where more than 20 kids are about to train with the professionals. He has invited Kagiso Rabada, the soul of South Africa’s fast bowling to come in and have a chat with the kids. Rabada runs in, bowls a few yorkers and then shows them how to hold the ball.
Such episodes are a recurring theme in the life of South Africa’s first black centurion. Now, he lives in the Wanderers in Cape Town, he has been there ever since his father, a journalist, decided to move to Johannesburg for work. Bavuma has and always will keep returning to Langa because he feels he has a role to play there in the middle.
On a swiftly deteriorating second innings Newlands’ pitch, with the hosts looking to declare, Bavuma walked in with a role to up the ante. He had with him a mere 145 runs spread across 4 Test series. Mbulelo Nkomo, who captained the Langa Cricket Club, another young African American batsman just loves to watch Bavuma play the cover-drive.
A knock that touched the lives of many South Africans reached its pinnacle when Bavuma, standing on his off stump, tried an expansive drive, but only managed an outside edge for four to reach his maiden Test hundred. There were grown men crying in the stands and kids losing their minds on Rubusana Avenue.
But with only one century in 65 innings, Bavuma was eventually dropped last month. He had three first-class games to bat and try and make a comeback. He had first joined the Highveld Lions under Geoffery Tayona, the country’s first black African head coach who continues to be one of his greatest cricketing mentors.
Since the exit of Makhaya Ntini, South Africa, for a significant amount of time, quite opposite of the country’s demographics, played without a consistent black African player. In 2015, Cricket South Africa had submitted a 37-page document to the national government detailing their approach of ‘transformation’ aiming at providing opportunities to the ‘previously disadvantaged people’. The quota system and the debate surrounding it had never affected Bavuma.
Bavuma smashed a career-best first-class score of 180 for the Lions and the selectors had to bring him back. During those 65 failed innings, Bavuma even played for the Northamptonshire as they pushed for promotion. The did get promoted and Bavuma contributed with two fine hundreds. But his counterattacking fifty on a damp green top against Mohammad Abbas on top stood out the most.
Currently nursing a hamstring injury, he is out for a minimum of ten days, which means he might return for the ODIs against Australia. He will surely be on that flight to India for the three ODIs starting in the second week of March and perhaps play the same opposition in Perth in South Africa’s World T20 opener in October.
His honesty in the press-conferences seems overwhelming and he knows runs are his only currency. Temba Bavuma the batsman, the aggressive fielder, the net bowler play the game to give something back to the streets that made him. While walking through these Cape Town suburbs, you notice little things that remind the place of its 150-plus years of cricketing heritage. With a drum, two bats and plastic stumps as kids cross the Bhunga Square they walk pass the Temba Bavuma mural, a magnificent graffiti that celebrates their pint-sized champion with a whale-like heart.