Black Cricket In South Africa Has Never Been So Good: Just Ask Australia

Meet Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma, major players in the Proteas side at a time when racial quotas in South African sport have come under increased government scrutiny.

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Nov 9 2016, 4:22pm

Screengrab via YouTube

This article was first published on VICE Sports AUNZ.

The summer of cricket is underway, with South Africa belting Australia by 177 runs in the First Test at the WACA Ground in Perth. Against Steve Smith's big-name Aussies, the South Africans brought with them the familiar faces of Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn. However, the unknowns of Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma attracted some attention, both for their cricket skills and for the colour of their skin.

Rabada and Bavuma are two cricketers who represent the future of cricket in South Africa in more ways than one. While many would dismiss their race as being irrelevant, the fact that the pair are black Africans is significant in that they have become key members of the Proteas side at a time when racial quotas in South African sport have come under government scrutiny.

Cricket was traditionally popular among English-speaking whites and the expat Asian community, though the latter were not able to compete in top-level South African cricket in the apartheid era. Since the end of the apartheid era in 1994, a high proportion of white players have come from Afrikaans-speaking backgrounds, and attempts have been made to increase the number of non-white players, in part through a quota system. Today, there are no boundaries, and black players are a part of South Africa's cricket future, with Rabada and Bavuma leading the way.

Fast bowler Rabada is unassuming and expressionless. However, the Johannesburg son of a doctor and an asset manager is cricket's hottest young talent, with pace and aggression that draws comparisons to trailblazer Makhaya Ntini, South Africa's first black cricketer.

In his first full international season, the 2015/16 summer, which was a largely underwhelming time for South African cricket, Rabada racked up the second-best match figures by a South African in Test cricket. His 13 for 144 against England in January sits behind Ntini's 13 for 132 in 2005 against the West Indies. On his ODI debut in 2015, Rabada's 6 for 16 on ODI debut against Bangladesh captured the world's imagination, with an incredible hat-trick creating headlines.

This week, Rabada ran away with the game at the WACA, destroying Australia in the second innings with pace, bounce, seam, conventional swing, reverse swing, searing yorkers, and the ability to target cracks in the wearing pitch. He finished with 5 for 92, and seven wickets in the Test to claim the man-of-the-match gong. in short, he was brilliant.

Earlier this year, Rabada became the first player to win six awards at Cricket South Africa's annual dinner, including the coveted South African Cricketer of the Year prize. Not only was Rabada the only player to notch up that many awards, he was also the youngest to win the main prize. His seven wickets against Australia only furthered his credentials as a future great. Nine Tests into his career, Rabada has 36 wickets at 24.42 runs apiece with four five-wicket hauls. There is obvious promise, but as Rabada put it himself: "The key is to do it for 15 years, not one game."

Kagiso Rabada is cricket's hottest young talent // Screengrab via YouTube

Rabada, like Ntini, is modest. Both players led their nation's bowling attacks when the mainstays were absent, but both have created instant legends. In a drawn Test match against Australia in the summer of 2005/06, Ntini put in one of the finest performances of his career to grab five wickets on a stale WACA pitch. If there was ever a moment that the apartheid era was over, it was on that sunny Perth afternoon as Ntini raced through the Aussie top order.

Just over 11 years later, and the baton has been passed to Rabada, a fresh-faced, brown-eyed 21-year-old with an unconvincing run-up that explodes into a whippy bowling action that produces 150km/hr tracer bullets. Rabada doesn't have the intimidation of Steyn, the swagger of Vernon Philander or the awkwardness of Morne Morkel; rather, Rabada exerts the energy of a young man that simply wants to beat his opponent, rather than drive him into the ground. In every case, Rabada is the bowler that Australia will fear most after the WACA smashing, because he gives nothing away.

Then, there is Bavuma. A specialist batsman at 167 centimetres, he is nearly a foot shorter than Rabada. Hell, he might be one of the shortest players in world cricket. Without the advantage of height or power, Bavuma's game is built on finesse and patience. After his Test debut in 2014, Bavuma's international career had stuttered until England toured South Africa in January. There, Bavuma created one of cricket's most enduring memories.

Bavuma smacked 102 to become the first black African to hit a century for South Africa. It was a dark time for South African cricket after series losses to India and England, but Bavuma breathed life into cricket's sleepy giant. This year is the 25th anniversary of South Africa's readmission to international cricket, and in that time, no black cricketer from the country had come close to scoring a Test hundred. Bavuma had other ideas.

Temba Bavuma celebrates his historic century against England in January // Screengrab via YouTube

In six seasons between 2004/05 and 2010/11, only six centuries were scored by black batsmen in first-class cricket – two of them were scored by Bavuma. Bavuma's ton against England was so stoic and patient, one would think it was Bradman or Tendulkar batting. Early in the innings, when Bavuma unconvincingly edged down fine leg for four, England's Ben Stokes fired down a laughable sledge: "You are so shit, I don't know what you are doing here." Bavuma simply smiled and carried on, later sending his adoring home fans into overdue delight with one of South African cricket's most important knocks.

Against Australia this week, Bavuma was immense. Having scored a fighting half-century in the first innings, Bavuma produced one of the all-time great run-outs on day four to end any hope of David Warner saving Australia. Then, when asked to bowl to give the strike men a rest on day five, Bavuma hit a crack on his first ball and would have had Usman Khawaja lbw for 84 had he not over-stepped. He later took a wicket and helped his nation to a well-deserved victory.

Although the writing was on the wall for the Aussies, South Africa were scarily dominant and are favourites for Saturday's Second Test in Hobart. The performances of Rabada and Bavuma against Australia have earned widespread praise, and they both now serve as important role models to the thousands of aspirant black cricketers seeking to emulate their new heroes.

@jamespavey_