Temba Bavuma has acknowledged that constantly being viewed through the prism of his skin colour has weighed on him and asked for South Africa's transformation process to be credited for its positives if it is going to be criticised for failures. Speaking for the first time since his recall to the national team last month, Bavuma said playing in the ODI team made him feel "like a kid with no burden out there" after he dominated the country's cricket conversation even though he was absent for most of the Test series.
"It has been hard," he said. "It's not so much the dropping part, all players get dropped, everyone goes through slumps of not scoring well. The awkwardness and uncomfortability from my side is when you are thrown into talks of transformation.
"Yes, I am black, that's my skin. But I play cricket because I love it. I'd like to think the reason I am in the team is because of performances I have put forward in my franchise side, and also for the national team, whenever I have been able to. The discomfort was there, having to navigate myself around all those types of talks. Players get dropped, I am not the last guy to get dropped. That's something we've come to accept."
Bavuma, who has been a regular in South Africa's Test team for the last four years, was injured for the opening match against England on Boxing Day. He recovered in time for the New Year's Test but was left out of the side on form, having only scored one century in his career, in 2016. At the time, Bavuma was told to work his way back through "weight of runs", under the guidance of new batting consultant Jacques Kallis.
"Jacques has been hands-on with most of the batters," Bavuma said. "He has been very open to sharing his knowledge and his expertise in batting. It's been a breath of fresh air working with him. Technically, there's no-one who knows better than him. It's been wonderful working with him."
At the same time, Bavuma also took the opportunity to reassess his own game. "The time away from the team has given me time to reflect and realign with my goals and to find the strength and courage to keep chugging along and keep enjoying the game," he said.
Within two weeks, he answered the call for runs with a career-best 180 in a first-class fixture for the Lions. That allowed him to force his way into XI for the Test series finale. He was also named in the one-day squad and is expected to be part of the T20 outfit. He remains the only black African batsmen in South Africa's set-up, which is why his Test snub sparked controversy.
On social media, Bavuma found himself caught in a race storm, with some arguing that he was only part of South Africa's plans because of the existence of the transformation target (the national team is required to field six players of colour, including at least two black Africans, on average over the course of a season) and others believing he was being discriminated against because of his race. He rejected both arguments and called for a fair judgement of the ideology of transformation.
"The one thing that irks me is when you are seen through the eyes of transformation," he said. "When you do well, transformation is not spoken about but when you do badly, transformation is thrown at the top of the agenda. I have a serious problem with that. We've got to be able to take the good with the bad. If transformation is bad when black African players are not doing well, then when we are doing well, let's also recognise transformation for what it's done."
In the Newlands ODI, for example, South Africa could field a team with seven players of colour, of which four (Bavuma, Andile Phehlukwayo, Lutho Sipamla and Lungi Ngidi) were black African, and that did not come at the expense of quality. The margin of victory, a healthy seven-wicket win, proves that a representative side and a winning side are not mutually exclusive. Bavuma called the win "massive for the team" and instrumental for himself.
"It was just good to be on the field," he said. "It's a different format and a different kind of pressure. I felt like I was a kid with no burden out there."
But South Africa had a huge task - to pull off the highest successful chase at Newlands - and Bavuma's 98 in a 173-run second-wicket stand with Quinton de Kock, who scored 107, took them there. But he knows one performance is not enough to keep him in the picture and is willing to work hard to stay there. "I don't think I have nailed my spot in the side. This was just my third game and I am just happy to be on the field," Bavuma said. "I don't know what's going to happen after this series or next week. It's just to enjoy the little moments I have."