The Temba Bavuma era of white-ball cricket begins later this week, with a series against Pakistan which is intended to kickstart South Africa’s next three World Cup campaigns. Bavuma has been appointed until 2023 and will be in charge for two T20 World Cups and a fifty-over one, and while it is too early to list things like becoming global champions among his aims, Bavuma hopes to use this series to establish a brand of cricket that South Africa can carry through his tenure.
“We have the opportunity now, building up to 2023 to the World Cup, to define our style of play and how we want to go about our business,” he said. “If you look at South Africa, we have always been a more than competitive ODI unit, even to the point where the guys have got to positions of No.1. For me, it’s about trying to define a style of play, create something that makes us accountable, and most importantly, to be able to institute that style of play in any conditions or any occasion.”
While Bavuma did not specify what this new strategy will entail – team management has spoken about playing ‘smart but aggressive’ in the recent past – he has identified one area that needs improvement. “Mentally, that’s somewhere we probably need to improve a lot more in terms of getting stronger,” he said.
South Africa have become known for crumbling under pressure in big moments at major tournaments but since the 2019 World Cup – where they were the first team to bow out – they have also become known for their rapid decline. They currently sit fifth on the ODI rankings and sixth in T20s and have only won one of their last six white-ball series as administrative chaos has bled onto the field and uncertainty has engulfed their approach.
As an indication of the level of experimentation South Africa reached, they have handed out six ODI and seven T20 caps since the 2019-20 summer, and are on to their third captain.
After Faf du Plessis was replaced by Quinton de Kock in February last year, de Kock has now been succeeded by Bavuma. None of these appointments appear to have been part of a plan. Du Plessis stood down as Test captain following South Africa’s defeat to England last year and was then stripped of the white-ball leadership. De Kock took over, and was also asked to temporarily lead South Africa in Tests which unfairly overburdened him. He was thensidelined from the leadership role in all formats. It is understood that de Kock wanted to continue the white-ball captaincy but after South Africa’s sorry trip to Pakistan earlier this year, they believed wholesale changes were necessary.
Now, they face Pakistan again, having had two months of international inaction thanks to Australia’s cancelled Test tour and they seem to have a clean slate. At least, that’s how Bavuma makes it sound. “The mood is optimistic,” he said. Though the challenge is steep.
For a start, South Africa will lose a quintet of key players after the second ODI as Kagiso Rabada, Quinton de Kock, David Miller, Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje head to the IPL. Their absence could well be a major disruption to Bavuma’s first series in charge, but he chose not to see it that way. “It’s not as disturbing now that we are aware of the arrangement that is in place,” he said. “For the first two games, we’ve got all our best players. It’s important that we get positive results. That’s not to say we are conceding the result in the third game. We believe we have got worthy enough replacements. I don’t think it’s that disturbing and we respect the relationship between CSA and the BCCI.”
When the big five leave, South Africa are likely to award more new caps, and players like slog-overs specialist Sisanda Magala, seamer Lizaad Williams and allrounder Wihan Lubbe are among those in contention.
“The guys who are here can take comfort in the fact that the World Cup squads will be coming from this group, so it’s important that guys acknowledge that there is an opportunity and that they know where they can fit in within that squad,” Bavuma said. “My message to the young guys is that the opportunity is there and make sure you keep churning out those performances.”
It will help that Magala and Williams will be used to conditions at the Wanderers and SuperSport Park, their domestic home grounds, because it’s rare to play cricket in South Africa in April. Bavuma expects the Highveld to be even more bowler-friendly than usual. From his recollection of a T20 competition played in April 2018, he said: “it seemed to suit seam bowling a bit more, with the ball swinging. But the wickets still become favourable for batting, so even though the challenge will be a bit more with the seam but I think there’s something in there for the batters.”
He also sees it as an opportunity for the team to test their adaptability, knowing that surfaces won’t always suit them. “In the long run we want to test ourselves a lot more in unfavourable conditions and see if we can execute our brand of cricket in all conditions,” he said.
At this point, South Africa are still in their short run, with just seven fixtures against Pakistan before a two-month winter break. Their real work will start in June, when they hope to tour West Indies in a series that was postponed from last year, before heading to Ireland and possibly Sri Lanka and India before the T20 World Cup. That will be the first true test of Bavuma’s leadership and so for now his task “is to inspire and try and get the guys in spaces where they can perform as well as they can for the team.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent