Temba Bavuma and South Africa are ready to start again against the old-fashioned “West Indies”.

The party is over. After two months of high-octane cricket with the SA20 and the U-20 Women’s World Cup, South African cricket now faces a major series of tests and it can be expected to be tough.

Although the series follows sold-out crowds across the country, testing begins on Tuesday this week and Wednesday next week, leaving little room for large weekend crowds and nothing to talk about.

This is understandable for a competition whose context was taken out when it was confirmed that South Africa had been knocked out of contention for the World Test Championship final, and against an opponent who had not competed properly here since winning the Test at St George’s Park in 2007. Since then, the West Indies have only toured South Africa once in 2014 and failed to win a Test.
Temba Bavuma made his debut in the series, and while it was nothing extraordinary, it marked a full circle for someone who saw Caribbean cricket as a role model. “Growing up, West Indies was the team I rooted for,” Bavuma said before the first Test. “They were always on TV at home and my uncles supported them. I think there has always been this (special) sentiment when it comes to the West Indies. When I debuted I got 10 runs so it wasn’t a big deal to make a noise. I hope it can go better.”
When it comes to leadership debuts, Bavuma probably couldn’t have wished for a lower profile job. At the same time as his reign as Test captain begins, Australia plays India, England is in New Zealand and the Women’s Premier League begins. It’s safe to say that the eyes of most cricket fans will be busy, especially as the outcome of this series has no bearing on the current WTC cycle.
For South Africa, this is simply an opportunity to start over, although their next test will be in December. Former captain Dean Elgar is likely to retire by then. He planned this series as a swan song in terms of both captaincy and play, and after having no choice in the former, he will want to make sure he has control of the latter. Elgar’s tenure lasted less than two years and marked a brief resurgence on the Test side, but he was replaced by Bavuma with new coach Shukri Conrad tasked with turning around a team that had been completely beaten in the last five Tests.

South Africa lost series in both England and Australia and were disallowed for less than 200 runs in seven of the 11 Test innings. This required a top-six shakeup that saw Sarel Erwee, Rassie van der Dussen, Khaya Zondo and Kyle Verreynne all eliminated and Aiden Markram and Ryan Rickelton withdrawing. Also included were Keegan Petersen, who returned from a torn hamstring, and Heinrich Klaasen, who was selected as the first goalie-batter. The overall composition of the squad suggests that South Africa is looking for a more proactive Bazball-style approach, but with the usual caution. Bavball maybe?

“In my experience, the last two series are always tough tours,” said Bavuma. “They separate the good guys from the really good guys and (that) comes with challenges. We have not met these challenges. We know we have to score points to let the bowlers do what they have to do. Let’s not forget we have guys here who played against India last summer when people didn’t support us and we won. And there wasn’t a guy who scored 150 points or anything like that. Let’s hope that (series against) West Indies will be another show of guys going out and doing what they have to do from a team point of view.”

To that end, South Africa is also hoping for slightly less hostile pitches than usual, even though the series will be played entirely on the Highveld and there has been heavy rain in the area for the past few weeks. While Bavuma and Conrad did not specifically ask for a specific type of surface, the pitches were more batter-friendly across the country on the four-day national circuit, and this is expected to continue in international play. Whether this will make cricket more exciting remains to be seen, but Bavuma certainly didn’t sell it that way.

When asked what he thought of the West Indies, he said: “They play old-fashioned cricket. Beaters crush it. The bowlers want to hit their off-trunk areas.” And he’s not wrong. Over the past year, the West Indies had the lowest Test run rate of any team at 2.71. South Africa has the second lowest score of 2.95. Both are well behind format leaders England, who run 4.36 by the end and have the best win-loss record in Tests in the last 12 months. For teams like South Africa and the West Indies trying to catch up, England’s high-risk, high-reward strategy may be an inspiration, but it looks like Bavuma & Co. are taking their motivation elsewhere.
“All the guys watched the T20 World Cup final and supported the ladies. We are always looking for areas where we can draw inspiration and energy from everywhere, and we will use this in our game,” said Bavuma, referring to the South African women’s team, which made history as the country’s first senior team to qualify for the World Cup finals.

Given that the men were kicked out of the last two T20 World Cups in the group stage and have yet to qualify for this year’s Over-50 World Cup, it’s fitting that they took note of how their counterparts exceeded expectations and even reiterated calls for more spending women’s game money.

“It was big – what the women’s team has been able to achieve over the last time with the limited resources at their disposal,” said Bavuma. “I hope with performances like this there will be a lot more support, a lot more care and a lot more investment in the women’s team.”

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