The weight on Temba Bavuma’s shoulder is unlike any other player in this tournament carries. And it’s built to such levels thanks to a perfect storm of cricket’s archaic power structures and South Africa’s complex socio-political realities.
We’ll get into the captaincy in due course, but first, its roots, which can be traced back to the days when the amateurs – often batters of different skill levels – almost always led the professionals. The upper classes used this construction to maintain their superiority over the rest, who dared to charge money for their time. The horror. How could such people be entrusted with the spirit of the game?
Times have changed: While captains are still the face of their team and many teams still get a suite while others step into standard rooms, the primacy of a captain is now being questioned more often than in the past. Especially when the said captain doesn’t stand out with their cricketing prowess. There will never be a Mike Brearley again.
However, are you aggressively challenging the original English construction of the top captain, when for a change the person likely to benefit is the first black African man to lead South Africa in international cricket?
Let’s make one thing clear first. Bavuma was not given the captaincy because he is a black man. In fact, he took a thorny crown when leadership in the sinking ship of South African cricket was scarce. He led the team with determination and grace when Quinton de Kock refused to take the knee at the final T20 Men’s World Cup. Then he welcomed De Kock back into the herd. He was an experienced leader at the domestic level. As for his current competitors for a spot in the XI, Rilee Rossouw had gone to Kolpak at the time and Reeza Hendricks was yet to have his best year in T20 cricket. Bavuma may not have been awarded the captaincy due to his race, but race will be an important consideration in determining his future as a T20 player and captain. Granted, Bavuma isn’t the only T20I captain currently struggling, but Aaron Finch and Kane Williamson undoubtedly have a better T20 pedigree and could be supported to bounce back. Bavuma’s T20I strike rate is 115, and he keeps out another player of color in Hendricks, who has a one-year cracker in T20s with an average of 42 and a strike rate of 144.
Bavuma may not have been given the captaincy due to his race, but race will be a key consideration in determining his future as a T20 player and captain
On the other hand, cricket has always been weird when it comes to dealing with underperforming captains. Once the XV is selected and the reins are handed over to the Captain, it’s really up to them to drop themselves. Coaches know better than to be coercive. More in the case of Bavuma. It is not inconceivable that selectors will be extra motivated to stay with him and for him to fight on, because there is a stereotype that needs to be beaten that black Africans are not natural leaders.
Not that a leader wants to doubt himself. They don’t make it all the way to international cricket by doubting their ability. However, you wonder if one or more of Bavuma, Finch, and Williamson don’t quietly wish the decision to be taken out of his hands. The bigger games of this T20 World Cup are yet to come, and they don’t want to get stuck in the middle where they can’t hit us or get out so other batters can maximize their time at the wicket.
It can be a lonely place to decide if you should play yourself. Hopefully Bavuma will give you good advice. Dropping yourself can be a sign of weakness, the opposite of elite competitors’ instincts. At the same time, you have to think about the player sitting outside and what he can bring to the team.
Some say that this pruning from the XV to XI is a captain’s most important job, but the job itself is not well described. At modern amateur levels, the captain creates a WhatsApp group, searches for matches, gets enough players to sign up, monitors team dues, and then thinks about batting order and bowling changes. They often don’t need to select an XI as often only so many show up even if more are confirmed.
The professional level captain’s role definition is less clear. Some teams tend to hand over complete control to them – selectors listen to them when choosing the XV, they also choose the XI and run the game – while some just give them control on the field. However, at the elite level of the modern game, the plans on the field are usually predetermined, the longer the format, the more the fate of the team depends on the fitness and depth of the bowling attack, players are more and more responsible for themselves and coaches and support staff play a greater role in running T20s.
Is the impact a captain has on his team exaggerated in cricket?•Getty Images
There remain the hollow parts of the job description like maintaining good body language, shaping the team to their own image and so on, but leaving all that aside, the fact remains that we still like the idea of one boss who it ends with. In cricket, this is the captain: they are at the front when the team loses and take credit for the wins. It might also make sense, because the coach doesn’t really experience the conditions in the middle, and that sense of the game is important for making crucial decisions. Therein lies the assumption that a Keshav Maharaj, as a vice captain, cannot make those decisions, but if Maharaj becomes the captain, the next person in line cannot make these decisions. And therein lies the assumption that those decisions are more important than runs and wickets.
It might not be ideal – maybe it’s too disruptive – to do this in the middle of a big tournament, but here’s a conversation cricket needs to have: how important is captaincy? There is no data to measure the impact of captaincy. Attributing a team’s win-loss record to a captain is cricket’s oldest problem: it ignores the strength of the team or opponent, and gives the captain undue credit and criticism.
If it feels strange – if something feels strange – always think, ‘What would Sri Lanka have done?’ They had a leadership group – Sangakkara, Jayawardene, and then Mathews was added to the mix – and who was actually captain didn’t matter much. They once switched captains halfway through the tournament to avoid an excessive fine. They won a T20 World Cup captained by Lasith Malinga, and he was given the reins in the first place as regular captain Dinesh Chandimal was reeled in by a slow overload penalty and subsequently failed to reclaim his place on the side.
Now that the ICC has ditched the old tradition of banning captains for overrates, here’s another thought: What would that clever Sri Lankan side have done if they had an underperforming captain who kept a better option out of the XI?
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo