Bavuma, Harmer and their contrasting paths to Kingsmead

Before you spare a thought for Temba Bavuma and his third trip into the 90s with only one century to show for his efforts, and that after 84 Test innings, consider Simon Harmer’s long walk back to freedom.

Bavuma delivered another masterclass at Kingsmead on Friday in how to steady a shaky innings. When he took guard in the 10th over after lunch on Thursday, South Africa had lost Dean Elgar and Sarel Erwee five deliveries apart. When he was bowled off his pads for 93 in the eighth over before lunch on Friday by a ripping turner from Mehidy Hasan, the home side were 298/7.

Bavuma batted for almost five hours and shared half-century stands with Kyle Verreynne and Keshav Maharaj. He was the difference between a mediocre total and South Africa’s 367. Just nine times in the 45 Tests at this ground has the first innings of the match been bigger.

Bavuma’s performance was cause for celebration, if not relief, for South Africans. Only cricket’s warped logic mislabels his innings a “tragedy” because he didn’t score seven more runs. And, among South Africa’s players, only Bavuma labours under this kind of unfair scrutiny because he hasn’t made more centuries. It’s a lazy, knee-jerk argument because citing the number of times he has nursed a swooning innings to respectability is less straightforward than counting hundreds, and thus rarely highlighted.

So the bean counters will be interested to know that 2,278 days have passed since Bavuma last scored a Test century. What might they make of the fact that, by stumps on Thursday, 2,316 days had gone by since Harmer last took a Test wicket?

In that time, Harmer featured in 86 first-class matches in which he bowled more than 20,000 deliveries and took 426 wickets for Essex, the Warriors and the Titans. But none for South Africa. Because, owing to the Kolpak status he took in 2016, he could not play for them.

He was a major factor in the county championship titles Essex won in 2017 and 2019, and captained them to triumph in the 2019 T20 Blast. A year earlier, he had helped the Jozi Stars’ win the Mzansi Super League. This summer, his 44 wickets at 19.29 made him the leading wicket-taker in the first-class competition for the champion Titans. Harmer was already a good bowler when he went to England. He has returned significantly closer to the finished article; a man in full.

He was picked in the squad for two Tests in New Zealand in February, but knew he had little chance of playing. His chance came at Kingsmead, and he took it. Harmer claimed all the wickets as Bangladesh shambled to 98/4 in reply at stumps on the second day – still 269 runs behind.

“Essex gave me the platform to find myself again,” Harmer told a press conference. I’d gone there on the back of being dropped from the South African team and the A side, and not knowing if I was going to get another franchise contract. I had a lot of self-doubt, and Essex gave me the opportunity to rediscover what made me successful; learning to be a matchwinner for them and getting comfortable with that role. The more I did it the more I started to believe. That has added a lot to my game, knowing that I can win games as an orthodox off-spinner.”

Not only did Harmer bowl like a winner for his haul of 4/42, he also batted like one in his career-best 38 not out in which he shared stands of 34 and 35 with Lizaad Williams and Duanne Olivier. “I don’t think I could have scripted a better day,” Harmer said. Would he have preferred a half-century or a five-wicket haul? “My bowling puts bread on the table, so I think a five-for.”

The now concluded Kolpak era was a lightning rod for controversy, chiefly about the reasons for South Africa’s player drain. Less often acknowledged is that county cricket has the resources to allow players to reach their potential, which in many cases is beyond the impoverished South African domestic game. After days like Harmer had on Friday, South Africa and their supporters should be grateful for Kolpak. Had Harmer felt as if he had shut up the detractors who said he was only interested in making money?

“There was a lot of media about how lucrative playing county cricket is,” he said. “For me, it was about opportunity. I was only playing one format for the Warriors when I left. I went [to Essex] and played all three formats. I was painted with the same brush as [other Kolpak players], which is fine. But currency is wickets and performances and winning games of cricket and trophies. And that’s all I put my blinkers on and tried to achieve. There is a feeling of vindication after coming back.

“There’s also still questions: am I good enough to play international cricket? I’ve done it for Essex, I’ve come back to the Titans and taken wickets there. Am I still good enough for international cricket? Four wickets doesn’t mean I am. But putting in a performance, just for my own self-belief, has been good.”

That performance unspooled under Durban’s grey skies and Kingsmead’s glowing floodlights, which was why 40 of the 49 overs the Bangladeshis faced were bowled by Harmer, Maharaj and Dean Elgar. No seamer was given the ball after the 10th over.

Those aren’t the only unusual truths for a Test match in South Africa. Another is that Bavuma and Harmer have taken different routes to Kingsmead, paths that in a different reality may never have crossed. That they are both here, both in the thick of things, and both contributing to the cause, is a thing to treasure

Updated: April 2, 2022 — 3:56 pm

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