In a country where Siya Kolisi leads a rugby team that has twice won the World Cup, Temba Bavuma cannot be the reference point for excellence even though he has two firsts to his name: no black player has led the South Africa men’s cricket team and before him, no one had broken into the playing 11 as a specialist batter. In a side that has Steve Smith and David Warner, Pat Cummins would not be the obvious choice as captain – never in 52 years of playing ODIs have Australia appointed a fast bowler as full-time leader. Yet, here they are likely to head out with teams for the first time in an ODI World Cup semi-final.
Once in the job, both have shown leadership skills. Appointed Test skipper because Tim Paine had resigned and named ODI captain because Warner was serving a leadership ban and Mitchell Marsh wanted to be among the rank and file, Cummins ensured that the 2023 Ashes would be remembered for cricket and not curmudgeonly behaviour, certainly not from his team. Cummins has spoken of cricket’s need to reduce carbon footprints and, in the context of this World Cup, why larger squads are a necessity when Marsh had to go home, Glenn Maxwell was injured and New Zealand were a team of walking wounded.
The way Bavuma defused what could have been a divisive situation in the wake of Quinton de Kock refusing to take a knee during the 2021 World T20 led to De Kock, also his opening partner, calling him a “flipping amazing leader.”
Both have played around the same number of Tests and not enough ODIs. Since his debut in October 2011, Cummins has played 86 including four this year before the World Cup. Only Kim Hughes, who had skippered in none, had led Australia to a World Cup with less experience. When Bavuma was appointed ODI captain in 2021, he had played six games. Thursday will be his 38th.
They have also been through protracted periods of uncertainty. Only Adam Parore has taken longer than Bavuma to get to a second Test century, 92 innings to Bavuma’s 88. He had come close a number of times, 89 against New Zealand and 71 against Bangladesh being two of them, and once ran out of partners on 95. Having debuted as a teenager in 2011, injury forced Cummins to stay out of international cricket till 2015. And from Tests till 2017.
And both have helmed teams that can take confidence from this campaign going into Thursday’s winners-take-all game at Eden Gardens. “I think we’ve come a long way since the start of the tournament. The first two games were two tough teams to come up against. And with the bowling, I think we’ve just got better and better in all phases. So yeah, it feels like everyone knows their role and it’s starting to click,” said Cummins here on Wednesday. “I think there’s a quiet confidence and I think our team plays our best when we’ve got that.”
Bavuma accepted being “nervous” and spoke of anxiety and solutions and mechanism to deal with it ahead of their first semi-final as a team (only De Kock and David Miller have been part of team that have gone this deep, in 2015). But he also mentioned a “sense of calmness” within the team. “I think we’ll take a lot of confidence with our performances up until this point.” Performance that includes a 122-run win against Australia.
But this is also where the narrative diverges. Cummins has been part of a team that has own the World Cup and, like David Willey after his last game for England, said that was possibly the most memorable moment of his career even though he didn’t play the final. Australia can look back at the great sides that have won the World Cup and that, Cummins said, drives this team.
For a player whose early career was blighted by injuries, Cummins has played all nine games going into the semi-final. In a format he has termed the most taxing physically, because as a bowler you can do 15km in a day, Cummins has bowled 69.5 overs and taken 10 wickets. Bavuma on the other hand, is dealing with a right hamstring injury which he said was still not 100%. “I am quite confident but it will not be an unilateral decision.” In the two games Bavuma missed due to a stomach bug, Reeza Hendricks played, scoring 85 against England.
A shadow of the player who carried his bat against Australia in September on way to 114 off 142 deliveries, Bavuma has averaged 20 and aggregated 145 runs in the World Cup.
Nearly nine years ago when he replaced an injured De Kock in the Test team to become the first specialist black batter for the Proteas, Bavuma had said, “I have realised that there are a lot of people out there that I represent.” In a country which has produced a line of black fast bowlers led by Makhya Ntini, Bavuma remains a rarity. He is now one game away from leading to South Africa to their first men’s cricket World Cup final. Trying to stop them is a team led by a man who usually goes about his business with a smile, one who could add the World Cup to the World Test Championship Australia won last June.