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Cricket news - The black and white of South Africa's dilemma

What message does Bavuma's axing send to black South Africans, who comprise South Africa's majority in both demographic and cricket-minded terms?

What message does Bavuma's axing send to black South Africans, who comprise South Africa's majority in both demographic and cricket-minded terms?

In the white corner, Temba Bavuma. And in the black corner, Faf du Plessis. Ladies, gentlemen and others, let's get ready to stumble down a rabbit hole drilled deep into the faultlines of South Africa's society by racially charged doublespeak and innuendo that will set your head spinning with confusion and frustration. Best, then, we get this straight from the outset: Bavuma and Du Plessis have been hopelessly miscast, by the spluttering classes, as the ultimate hero and the incorrigible villain of a saga exponentially more complex than anything two mere players could engineer. They are lightning rods on churches as opposed dogmatically as they are diametrically, and they are being struck with alarming frequency by ill-aimed, poorly-reasoned bolts of idiocy.

Outrage at Bavuma being dropped before the second Test against England, after he missed the first match with a hip injury in the wake of a string of low scores, has focused on increasingly outlandish criticism of Du Plessis - not least because South Africa's captain said "we do not see colour" when he was asked what message Bavuma's axing would send to black South Africans, who comprise South Africa's majority in both demographic and cricket-minded terms. South Africans voted democratically for the first time in 1994, but they are decades away from achieving democracy. If you're South African and you think you don't see colour, best you have your eyes tested, or consider the level of privilege you enjoy that allows you to say something so bizarre, or both.

Du Plessis is white in a society still heavily skewed in his race's favour on almost every front, particularly socially and economically. Bavuma is black, and although he is solidly middle-class he is a totem for the struggles of mostly poor black players - batters in particular - to advance in the game. His sidelining was, for many, the last straw in the steady whitening, in recent weeks, of a sport that has spent the best part of the past 30 years trying, not always sincerely, to make itself look more like the nation it purports to represent. That the installation in important positions of Jacques Faul, Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis - all of them white - followed the dismal failure of Cricket South Africa's (CSA) black-led operations arm, led by now-suspended chief executive Thabang Moroe, and board, where Chris Nenzani has somehow clung to the presidency, only fuels the racial polarisation. The black voices now questioning the slew of white appointments most loudly were oddly silent for the months that Moroe and Nenzani spent making damaging decisions that brought cricket perilously close to disaster as a professional and cultural enterprise. Consequently, those voices have no credibility. Conversely, too many whites have heralded the new appointments without interrogating the suitability of some of the new brooms in either cricket or political terms. All that matters, to them, is that those new brooms are white.

Besides Bavuma, another victim of all that, from the black perspective, is Enoch Nkwe, who went to India as South Africa's interim team director - or head coach - in September and returned in October with a drawn T20 series and a 3-0 thrashing in the Tests. He was replaced, permanently, by Boucher and, worse yet, if you adhere to this narrative, demoted to serve as his assistant. And that despite the fact that Nkwe is the more qualified of the two. "I'm not going to beat around the bush - it's been a challenge, especially when it all unfolded," Nkwe said on Tuesday. "But I believe I'm mature enough to deal with the situation. By the time we got to the camp [before the current Test series against England], I felt very strong and confident, I can make a massive impact in a different role. I've enjoyed the role. Boucher has been very supportive. He's given me the platform to make a difference in the team, to contribute as much as possible; whether it's in team routines or in training. We've worked closely together. I'm enjoying the partnership. He's very relaxed. As much as he's intense when it comes to business time - just like any other coach - he cares a lot about the team.

"It wasn't an easy call to make but when I met with [CSA acting chief executive] Jacques Faul and 'Bouch' and Graeme [Smith, the acting director of cricket], it was pretty clear. They were very realistic in terms of what has happened. They showed a lot of care. For me, it's always been about the country. It's never been about me. My playing days are gone. I am here to coach human beings. I am here to coach cricketers to get better. Unfortunately, things happened the way they happened and I had to put my ego aside and focus on what the country needs, and I felt that even in this capacity I can make an impact."

How did Nkwe feel about the reaction to the downward kink in his career path? "I appreciate the support the South African people have given me. They've been behind me. I can guarantee them that I'm going to give it my full, 100% effort. I'll make sure we do our utmost not to let the country down. Yes, there's different energies and different minds. But there hasn't been a hierarchy. We all pull in the same direction. Boucher's been superb in that - he includes everybody in terms of going in a certain direction. He's made it clear from the start which direction we need to go."

At least Nkwe is still in the dressing room. Bavuma has been sent down to franchise level to play for the Lions. But, Nkwe said, although Bavuma was out of sight he was not out of mind: "I strongly believe he's a good player, and he's in the process of making sure that - from a mental, emotional and skills point of view - when he gets an opportunity to come back, whether it's in the next Test match or in a different format, he takes ownership of his position and does 10 times more than what he has done. We're confident and believe in him. Boucher is the same, and the rest of the team. All I'm going to ask is that we are more patient.

"If maybe a bit of luck went his way he would have got two or three more hundreds, but those things we've put behind us. I know that having spoken to him recently, he is someone that actually looks forward to getting that opportunity. He wants to be in this environment and hopefully, in the future, he performs well enough and he can lead the team because I know having worked with him, he is a strong leader, very smart. He is able to lead a massive group to greater heights."

That sounded like an endorsement for Bavuma as a future captain. Could he do the job, and do it well? "In my mind, yes. I can see that happening. But he does understand that he needs to put in some performances. The future could be in a year's time, it could be in two years' time. We don't know. But, having worked with him in the last year-and-a-half, he has got the qualities, there's no question around that. I wouldn't be surprised if, after Faf, he takes over."

For that to happen, especially in the eyes of their detractors, the new regime will have to prove their transformation credentials beyond what they have done so far. Apart from their cricketing claims to a place in the team, the three debutants in the first two Tests against England - Rassie van der Dussen, Dwaine Pretorius and Pieter Malan - are all white. But Nkwe argued otherwise: "[Transformation is] not something that has been ignored. It just so happens that things have turned out this way. We are really working hard behind the scenes to build a strong pool of players to come through. We've looked at the high-performance system to make sure that we can produce and make sure we are a well transformed team in the future, a true rainbow nation. And there's no doubt that's going to happen in the very near future. I have had a chat with Graeme and he is fully behind it. People maybe might not see it but he really cares and he has put in a lot of processes and a lot of plans behind the scenes to make sure that, in the near future, there are no questions on that topic." Tell that to the many inquisitors aching to know why Bavuma has been cast aside but not Du Plessis. They will doubtless shift their opportunistic focus onto Nkwe to slur him as an Uncle Tom and a sellout.

It is true that Du Plessis has gone seven innings without a half-century and last made a century 16 innings ago. So where does he get off saying Bavuma will need "weight of runs" for the Lions to regain his place in South Africa's team? But the bigger picture captures a more relevant reality. In his 65 Test innings, Bavuma has scored 1,812 runs with a sole century. Sixty-five trips to the crease into Du Plessis' Test career, he had six hundreds among his 2,508 runs. His most recent 65 innings have brought 2,167 runs and five centuries. Leaving aside the disruption that dropping a tough, seasoned, inspirational leader would do to the confidence of a dressing room that has only just emerged from the gloom of the World Cup and the tour of India by beating England in the first Test of the since levelled series, dispensing with Du Plessis on the grounds of his recent batting form - which has been some of the best in his team - would be lunacy. And who would replace him? Bavuma, a fine player who will rediscover himself, but who has scored nine and 17 since returning to the Lions?

Still, some will refuse to see past their own clumsy, limited agenda and continue to get in the way of constructive conversation. They have exhausted the indulgence they didn't merit in the first place, and now they need to see the truth. All they have to do is look: It's there in black and white.

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