Temba Bavuma plays football at a training session
Lee Warren / © Gallo Images/Getty Images

Temba Bavuma: 'I understand I have a voice, and the influence to make things better around me'

South Africa's white-ball captain talks about his year in charge and his role as an agent of change

Interview by Firdose Moonda  |  

Temba Bavuma has emerged as one of the heroes of South Africa's last nine months. He was their second-highest run scorer in Tests, led the T20I side through success and controversy to narrowly miss out on a place in the World Cup semi-finals, and established himself as one of the most impressive speakers on issues within and outside of the game. With a new season on the horizon, including tours to India, England and Australia, and another crack at an ICC trophy, Bavuma spoke about the progress of the national team in each format, his IPL ambitions, social justice causes and more. This interview was facilitated by his agency, Roc Nation Sports International.

It's been about 15 months since you were named white-ball captain. How would you describe the experience so far?
It's been an interesting one. I understood at the beginning that the responsibility wouldn't be an easy one, but if I look at the year and everything that we had to overcome, I wouldn't have envisaged all of that either. As a team, we've been able to make good strides going forward, and as a leader within the team, for me there's been a concerted effort to focus as much on the cricket and not find ourselves consumed by all the off-field matters.

How difficult was that - to concentrate on just cricket - considering the controversies of the last two and a half years?
With the bad times there were good times, like us coming together as a team, looking at where we were and where we wanted to go. There was a lot of excitement in terms of what we could achieve as a group. Some of the guys I've played with since we were 15 years old, so to be in that situation where we have the responsibility, the privilege, of taking the team forward and putting it on the map, that was something really exciting. It's helped us to pull together as a team and really go out there with the mindset of playing for one another.

The team surprised many by narrowly missing out on a semi-final spot at the last T20 World Cup, and they went into that on the back of three successive T20I series wins. Do you think the next tournament is an opportunity to go all the way?
There are definitely things that still need to happen but I feel we can go all the way. If I look at the way we performed at the previous World Cup, we exceeded people's expectations - though not our own. We knew the standards which we have set for ourselves and we knew what we wanted to achieve. If we can get better from our previous showing, we can achieve anything. But realistically there is stuff that we need to do. If I look at our bowling attack, it can be seen as one of the best around. Probably with the batting there's a bit more we need to add in terms of competing with the best.

Where do you feel the batting needs to improve?
A bit more consistency at the top. The guys in the middle played quite well. Guys stepped up at different moments within games, within series. From a batting point of view, we need more at the top.

Play 03:08

'I don't think we should shy away from saying the ODI side is not there yet

The one-day side hasn't had the same success and your qualification for the 2023 World Cup is hanging in the balance. Do you think you will manage to finish in the top eight or are you preparing for the qualifying event in Zimbabwe?
I believe there's still a chance that we can automatically qualify but if it means we've got to go to Zimbabwe, then so be it.

The ODI side is in a different phase, if I compare it to the other formats. We shouldn't shy away from that as a group. It's a matter of saying, "We are not where we need to be." It's not about chasing quick results. It's us trying to build up a system, trying to build a way where we can win games in and around pressure. With the one-day side, we're not there yet. The personnel is there. There will be a lot more opportunities, probably a lot more faces you see within that format, until we get to understand what is our way of doing things.

And then the Test side. You've turned around from No. 7 on the rankings before last year's tour to West Indies and now find yourselves in second place on the current World Test Championship points table.
The growth of those guys has been exponential. Not to be pessimistic but there is a bit of a danger to that. We know as a group, as much as we've been able to achieve success relatively quickly, we are still at a phase where we are setting the foundation for us to be able to consistently do well and for us to be synonymous with excellence as a group.

How much of it is down to the captaincy style of Dean Elgar?
I've enjoyed working with Dean. I've always enjoyed him, from the time that I joined the team. He's a tough character and he has really brought that no-nonsense approach to the team. He calls a spade a spade, whether you're a player or whether you're management. He really puts you in a position where you need be accountable for whatever your role is in the team, and I know the guys have warmed up to him. That will be a process for some of the guys.

Do you play good cop to Dean's bad?
I may be softer but I also have my moments of… not aggression, but my moments of speaking out. Dean is not someone who is going to try and mince his words. He will say whatever is on his mind. You've got to trust that everything he says comes from a good place. We get along well, mainly for the fact that our vision is the same. We want to see a better South African team, we want to see people speak about the team with a lot more pride.

On Test captain Dean Elgar:

On Test captain Dean Elgar: "He really puts you in a position where you need be accountable for whatever your role is in the team" © AFP/Getty Images

As a batter, how much pressure is on you to get to that much anticipated second Test hundred?
I've always been a team-first type of guy but at the end of the day, you understand that people will judge you by your stats. Within the Test team, the focus, the priority, is that we need guys to start competing with the rest of the world from a batting point of view. There is that opportunity and myself being one of the guys who have been there for a while, there is that responsibility. It's not pressure because I think pressure is not just on the senior guys, it's on everyone, but from my side, there is a bit more effort to contribute a lot more considerably towards the team. I've only got one hundred but I wouldn't say that is an indictment of me as a player at that level. Would I like to have more hundreds? Yes, I would. The opportunities have been there. But if I look at my contribution over the last 18 to 24 months, I'll be happy with that.

Who are some of the coaches that have informed your development?
Lawrence Mahatlane [former Lions and current South Africa Under-19 coach] assisted me quite a lot from a technical and mental point of view and really tried to make me understand what I needed as a 15- or 16-year-old to play international cricket. And then [former Lions coach] Geoff Toyana, who I got along very well with, focused more on the person and really gave me the confidence to believe in myself. Of late, working with Mark [Boucher], he is very strong from a technical point of view and I've seen how that has brushed up areas of my game that have been lacking. Our batting coach Justin Sammons has been incredible for a lot of us.

Speaking of Mark Boucher, was there a sense of relief when the disciplinary charges against him were dropped?
I haven't been with the wider group but I would like to think there would be relief that now we are in a space where we can 100% focus on the cricket. We hope that headlines within the media will be dominated by the players and their performances. We look forward to being in that space. I am sure the coach, as well, will look forward to being allowed to focus on his main job of coaching and being given the necessary support that he requires as a coach.

How would you describe the team culture now?
It's one that is inclusive. I look at the leadership squad - you've got guys from different backgrounds, who come in with their different perspectives and guys are able to sit down at a table and share their ideas, and whatever decision we make, it's an encompassing one. It's one that accommodates everyone. It's not one that is biased to one specific group. Culture is not something that is born or built in a month or three months. It's a continuous process of guys putting the right ingredients into that culture pot. It is not the responsibility of the coach. It is not the responsibility of the captain. The main guys within the team, the coach and captain set the vision and then you need the players to follow with that.

The biggest word for me is inclusiveness, and guys are seeking excellence in everything they do. We are pushing each other, we are pushing the boundaries and we are trying to get better and better. There's openness in the team. If I think back at the conversations that were had, they were sensitive conversations, and I don't think any group would be having those types of conversations and not be in a place where they want to play for each other on the field. It's an environment where it's conducive for guys to play well, and I'd like to think the younger guys that are coming in feel as if they can come in and be themselves but most importantly, perform.

South Africa were unfortunate to miss out on a semi-final spot in the last T20 World Cup. Like three of the other teams who made the cut, they won four of their five group games

South Africa were unfortunate to miss out on a semi-final spot in the last T20 World Cup. Like three of the other teams who made the cut, they won four of their five group games © AFP/Getty Images

You kick the season off with a lot of fixtures on the road, starting with five T20s in India. South Africa are at full strength but India are resting some big names. Where do these matches fit into your wider preparations?
These games are definitely important. As a T20 squad, It's the first time we'll be together since the World Cup. I guess just that experience of being together, us reminding ourselves of the good things that we did, how we go about playing cricket and also seeing the new faces that are within the squad, to see how those guys can come in and add value. That's an exciting prospect.

And then you go on to England and Australia for some big Test rubbers. Are those top priority this summer?
With the Test side, every game is important now, looking at where we are on the log. There's a realistic chance of seeing ourselves in those Test championship playoffs. I guess it's going to be a fine balancing act when it comes to giving guys opportunity from a playing point of view.

I don't see a situation where your main bowlers are playing all the games, especially the guys who play all formats. A conversation needs to happen around there. But I know Dean wants all his players at his disposal, whether they play all the games or not. That's a conversation that I am sure will happen between the decision-makers.

Very recently we saw South African players unavailable because of the IPL and it definitely ruffled some feathers, most notably Elgar's. That said, did you watch the IPL?
I haven't been fully invested. It's been long. It's nice to see some of our guys doing well. KG [Rabada] en route to being the quickest to 100 wickets. Quicker than [Lasith] Malinga. That's something to be proud of. And Marco Jansen - how he has gone and performed. Or Aiden [Markram]. And even the younger guys who have showed their ability. There is a lot of talk about Dewald Brevis. He is an exciting prospect for our cricket. And Tristan Stubbs, getting a go. It's been nice to see those guys.

Has it sparked any ideas of you playing there?
I'd like to play there. The stronger my performances, the more realistic the opportunity becomes. I've also developed this fantasy of captaining a team. I don't know where that comes from. I'd like to get that experience as well. But I kinda need to get into a team before that happens!

The likes of Marco Jansen and Kagiso Rabada give South Africa's bowling an edge.

The likes of Marco Jansen and Kagiso Rabada give South Africa's bowling an edge. "If I look at our attack, it can be seen as one of the best around," Bavuma says Sydney Seshibedi / © Getty Images

What did you do with your time off?
I went on holiday. I went to Cape Town to see the family. I've tried to relax and stay away from cricket as much as I could. But also, I've got more involved with my foundation.

Tell us a little about the Temba Bavuma Foundation and how it works.
In simple terms, we try to systemise my development as a young child who had his roots in Langa, How I was taken out of that system and put into another system, where I had the opportunity to attend some of the top boys' schools in South Africa. I benefited immensely from an education point of view, from a mentorship point of view, but also from an ethos point of view, in terms of how you are taught to manage yourself as an individual among other people. I got bursaries and scholarships from a young age, because of, I guess, the little bit of talent that I had. And there was so much that got put into my pot to allow me to fulfil my potential.

We identify talented cricketers - boys and girls. We put them into our partner schools, we cover their education through bursaries, and we are part of that journey, that development. There's a whole mentorship thing - understanding that you are taking that individual from an environment that he is so familiar with and you are putting him into another environment that has its challenges. Then we've got an infrastructure-development side.

We also identify areas, whether it's clubs, whether it's schools, that need development from an infrastructure point of view - be it cricket nets or cricket pitches. And we either come in to refurbish what's there or we build new. We've also got an arm of social initiative, which was mainly brought about because of Covid and seeing the effects that Covid had on our people. Our people not having access to basics - things like food and clothing. So we are involved in drives.

We also lent our voice to the fight against gender-based violence and hope to create awareness around that pandemic in itself. We also have a cricket team - U-12, U-13, that participates in different tournaments around Johannesburg, and that's from an exposure point of view.

Kids in Soweto don't let a lack of cricket equipment stop them from playing. Part of the work Bavuma's foundation does is taking children and putting them into environments where their sports skills are recognised and nurtured

Kids in Soweto don't let a lack of cricket equipment stop them from playing. Part of the work Bavuma's foundation does is taking children and putting them into environments where their sports skills are recognised and nurtured Alexander Joe / © AFP/Getty Images

You touched on the cultural challenge of taking children out of a familiar environment and placing them in a foreign, moneyed one. Do you think it is possible for development to happen differently, so that it doesn't remove children from their surroundings, which is what happened to you and so many others?
There definitely is that challenge, which is why mentorship and being involved in that journey is important. We never sideline the parents in the process. They are fully invested in the child's development. We don't position ourselves as the sole guardians of the kids. There is a concerted effort between the foundation, the parents and the school, where we have a tailored programme or approach to those scholars.

But is it the way to go? I know it has been a contentious one for certain people, where they feel that those opportunities should be accessible to that individual within his [original] environment but the reality is that it isn't like that. I don't believe it's within my power to be able to bring that education to that child. That's more a governmental thing. I'm looking at this from my experience. I'm looking at the things I attribute my success to, and I am saying, "This is the route I took. It's not the only route, but this is the one that I understand and I feel like I'm in a position to provide that to other talented individuals." In an ideal world, you would like a situation where all that you get at a Bishops or St David's is available at Langa High or a school in Soweto. But that's not where we are at.

Do you see yourself as a social-justice activist?
By virtue of the fact that you play cricket, you've been there for a couple of years, you've done well, people start seeing you as someone who can use your voice to either create awareness or to effect some kind of positive change. I am not one for politics. But I guess because of the position I hold, I kind of find myself in those conversations.

It's not conversations I will shy away from. I will give my opinion on things. I understand the fact that I have the power and I have the influence to make things better around me. I understand where I come from. I understand there were people who were integral to my success. And I would also like the same meaningful opportunities that I received as a young child to be given to kids who have the same talent, or more, than I did as a young guy. In terms of change, the more people who have that willingness within their hearts to do that, the easier it would be for us to create a better living environment.

Do I have a future in politics? No.

Talking about the role sport can play in activism, is there still a significance to taking a knee or has it become gesture politics?
For the team, the biggest thing for me was the conversation we had. It was more about your own perspective of how you are seeing things, being able to put that aside and being able to have empathy for the other guy, listening to what the other guy says. You don't necessarily have to agree with what he says, but it's just understanding where he comes from and having that empathy. At least you kind of understand what informs a certain guy in his decision-making or his attitude. That was the biggest thing.

"[Taking the knee] hasn't been put on the guys, and I don't see a situation where guys will be instructed to do so. If that is the case, then we need to learn from the season" © AFP/Getty Images

Taking the knee - it was needed. It probably got to a point where, without being disrespectful to it, it was a bit more about optics more than anything. But I think within the team there was a lot of growth, a lot of respect that guys started having for each other. At the beginning of last season, there was the rule that we would take the knee throughout the whole season. That rule hasn't been put on the guys, and I don't see a situation where guys will be instructed to do so. If that is the case, then we need to learn from the season. It is not something that I will be instructing my team-mates to do. If guys want to do it, that's of their own volition. There was a lot of growth in terms of the conversations, challenging our own perspectives in and around taking the knee and the BLM situation.

What are you looking forward to in the coming season?
There's massive opportunity for us to achieve as a team, starting with the India series and then the UK tour. The Australia series is another big tour. If we come out on top after Australia, we could be a force to be reckoned with as a team, especially the Test team. There's massive opportunity for individuals to make a name for themselves. Until 2027 there's ICC events every year, so there's the prospect of getting that monkey off our backs, of never bringing back any silverware. The big theme in my head is opportunity.

Who is the best bowler you've faced?
That's always a tricky one because you are still playing with the guys. You don't want to give them an edge. The Indian spinners in India are quite tough. You could choose any of those guys. Stuart Broad is a tricky bowler. I'll stick with those two.

And the best place you've toured?
I enjoy London. It's a multicultural city with beautiful stadiums.

Who is the best person to tour with?
KG. We get on well.

Are you hoping to be playing in that home World Cup in 2027?
It would be nice but that's very, very far away. I'd like to play for as long as the body and my performances allow me to. What that number is, I don't know.

And lastly, are we likely to see you bowling a bit more?
I am going to work on my bowling. You never know with the bowlers who break down. I am going to work on it and make sure I am ready next time.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent