Cricket News By TODAYLIVESCORE.INFO - Bavuma vs Maharaj: Who's the better fit for the T20 WC?. South Africa won the T20I series against Sri Lanka under Maharaj's captaincy.
South Africa won the T20I series against Sri Lanka under Maharaj's captaincy.
“Cricket ratings have no entry for captains,” Mike Brearley wrote in the 2001 update of his 1985 classic, The Art of Captaincy. “And even some of those in the know can be remarkably reluctant to acknowledge a captain's potential impact, whether good or ill.”
Twenty years on, Brearley's words remain true. New ways to measure players' performances have since been devised, but putting a number on the worth of a captain – only as a captain, not as a player – remains impossible.
Victories versus defeats is a blunt instrument. How many fewer matches would have been won had the team not been as good, regardless of the leadership? How many more games would have been lost had the captain not had the priceless ability to push the right buttons at the right time?
South Africans have had reason to ponder these questions in recent months, particularly in white-ball terms. In July, Temba Bavuma presided over a 3-2 T20I series win over West Indies, the current world champions in the format, in one of their own backyards, Grenada. Bavuma was also at the helm for South Africa's subsequent lesser challenge in Ireland, where they lost one ODI and had another washed out in a drawn series and swept the T20Is 3-0.
Onto Colombo, Bavuma had his thumb broken by a throw from the field in the first of six white-ball games his team would play against Sri Lanka. Bavuma's removal sparked South Africa's regression in that ODI, which they were on course to win – at 155/1 after 28 overs in search of 301 – when he was injured. Into the breach stepped Keshav Maharaj, under whom South Africa went down 1-2 in the ODIs and cruised to a 3-0 triumph in the T20Is. “The wounds of losing the ODI series have become good performances in the T20I series,” Maharaj told an online press conference after the third T20I at the Premadasa on Tuesday (September 14).
Bavuma's thumb is likely to have mended in time to reclaim his team from Maharaj for the T20 WC in the UAE and Oman in October and November. And he will, as Maharaj made plain: “Temba is the man for the job right now. I'm just filling his shoes and following from where he left off. I'm sure he'll make a speedy recovery and take over the reins. He's done a sterling job so far. Everyone is looking forward to having him back in the team.”
There can be no questioning Bavuma's captaincy credentials. He was at the wheel for the Lions when they won the 2018/19 T20 competition and, in the same season, for six of their 10 first-class matches. The Lions won five of those games and drew the other, and were champions in that format, too. Bavuma and Maharaj went head to head as captains of the Lions and the Dolphins in the 2020/21 T20 final, which the Lions won.
But, considering the T20 WC will be played in conditions not unlike Sri Lanka's, and recognising Maharaj's understanding of the value of slow bowling and how and when to deploy it, which he proved in Colombo, might it not be the clever thing to do to retain him as captain for the tournament?
Mark Boucher wasn't asked that question on Tuesday, and he has been a strong advocate for Bavuma. But his view on Maharaj's leadership was clear: “He's got a great feel for the game, especially when you're playing a lot of spinners” who benefitted from Maharaj's “communication, confidence and trust”. To make his case, Boucher pointed to Maharaj's handling of Aiden Markram. In the third ODI and the second T20I, the part-time off-spinner was expensive in the powerplay but more effective later in the innings. “Aiden went for a few runs and [Maharaj] was still brave enough to bring him back towards the end,” Boucher said. “That confidence that he showed in Aiden, Aiden fed off it and produced the goods.”
Historically South Africa have built their attack around fast bowling, even in the subcontinent. That wasn't the case this time, and it paid off. Maharaj, Markram, Tabraiz Shamsi and Bjorn Fortuin bowled 38.1 of the 58.1 overs – almost two-thirds – conceded runs at 5.06 to the over compared to the 8.05 of Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Dwaine Pretorius and Wiaan Mulder, and claimed 16 wickets to the seamers' six.
“It's crucial for a spinner to be backed,” Maharaj said. “We can bowl an over that goes for 10, 12 runs. But it's important that we give them the confidence to come back. Bjorn showed that [on Tuesday].” Fortuin took 1/13 in two overs with the new ball and 1/9 in the 14th and 16th overs. “‘Shammo' has been exceptional – he might go for runs in his first couple of overs but he finds a way to come back, and still go under six runs an over and pick up wickets.” Shamsi, the No. 1-ranked T20I bowler, took 4/67 in 10 overs in the series. His passion for the team – “I don't have my picture on this badge.” – was at least as valuable as his performance. That's what belief does.
“Spinners in our country have needed backing and support,” Maharaj said. “It's good that the coach and the selectors are starting to back spin more and see the impact we can make. It's a good confidence booster to know you have the backing of the hierarchy.”
As for his overall approach to captaincy, Maharaj said: “I have my gameplans and thoughts before the game, but it's more about adapting on the field and trying to read conditions as soon as possible. I try and identify periods in the game when we can go for the kill.”
Maharaj's directness showed when he had to decide whether or not to review on-field umpires' calls. He came out on top in that equation: seven referrals resulted in wickets and six were unsuccessful, one of them by the slim margin of umpire's call.
None of which makes Maharaj a better captain than Bavuma, who has led South Africa to eight wins in his 15 games in charge and has lost only one of four series in charge – a home ODI rubber against Pakistan in April. But Bavuma will want to make bigger contributions as a player. In a dozen ODI innings, all but one of them in the top four, he has scored a century and two 50s. After 16 T20I innings, all in the top three, he has one half-century. South Africa won only three of their nine series, across the formats, under Quinton de Kock – who nonetheless kept producing, scoring four centuries and 21 half-centuries in 72 innings while he was captain. Brearley, a practising psychoanalyst, was a better manager of people than he was a Test player. But even in the 1970s and 80s that was unusual. Captains have long had to pull their weight as players, and Bavuma will know that.
The question of whether Bavuma or Maharaj would be a better option as captain is sharpened by the race politics that are necessarily infused into every aspect of South Africa's reality. For more than 350 years blacks have been, and continue to be, unfairly relegated to the bottom social and economic rungs. Brown people are only a rung above. Bavuma is black, Maharaj brown. Efforts to end or at least curb ongoing white supremacy are met with indifference or outrage by many whites, and have been subverted by corruption by figures of all races. Social justice is decades, if not centuries, away.
With CSA's cathartic but wrenching Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings set to resume on October 18 – five days before South Africa play Australia in their T20 WC opener – it is no small mercy that Bavuma's return to the captaincy is assured. Cricket in South Africa could not stand an intensification of its already febrile racial conflict.
Success, under Bavuma, for a South Africa team who are slow-burning their way upward would lower the temperature. There is reason to believe that is more likely now than before Bavuma was appointed. And because Maharaj isn't the captain doesn't mean his leadership has been lost: he is still in the squad.
What if South Africa don't do well at the T20 WC? “A French general was once tactlessly asked, after a famous victory, if it hadn't really been won by his second-in-command,” Brearley wrote. “He thought for some time before answering. ‘Maybe so,' he replied. ‘But one thing is certain: if the battle had been lost I would have lost it.'”
Captaincy comes with consequences. Bavuma will know that, too.