Learning to Fly

The District Six Museum is a short walk from Cape Town's centre. Across the Grand Parade, where the hustlers, the hawkers and the traders ply their wares under the scalding, shadeless sun and the unflinching and incongruous gaze of Edward VII. Past City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his famous speeches. Past the Castle of Good Hope and into a network of mean streets. Not necessarily in the sense in which that phrase is usually used – although you wouldn't linger here after dark – but because, here, evil was committed.

The District Six Museum commemorates the old and new life of a part of its city which apartheid tried to destroy. Those days are gone now, but the bleak legacy of memories endures and the road to restitution is long and far from run. This was the nature of the ancien regime writ large – in place of cosmopolitanism there must be uniformity, in place of spontaneity there must be predictability, in place of racial interaction there must only be white people – and, when you go there, the thought of what went on makes you reflect very deeply. For people of a certain age, the District Six Museum, with its monochrome photos and its banners and its people's maps, more even than Robben Island (although that has its moments, of course), takes you back to a time when unrest in South Africa was headline news every night, and nobody knew when, if ever, it would end.

These, of course, were the days of the sporting boycott, when it would have been impossible to imagine a side comprising the South African game's many lost white players taking the field in an official context, let alone a team captained by a representative of the Durban Indian community, or a tiny man from a Cape township, or a twenty year-old fast bowler from the Highveld.

Returning to South Africa after a twenty year absence – it is a salient thought that Kagiso Rabada was yet to walk, much less bowl, when I was last here – there was a palpable although indefinable sense of a more mature country, one that was embracing the future (even if it is still not sure if it likes it), rather than looking towards it with trepidation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began its hearings after I was last here, is long passed, and the system which gave rise to the need for it has faded even further into history. The flag of the old South Africa, which, in a strange moment of elemental and retrogressive madness, I saw paraded at St.George's Park in Port Elizabeth in December 1995, is gone for good too. Everywhere there is red, blue, green, black, yellow and white.

Newlands, in the city's affluent suburbs, is representative of a very different South Africa. Head out on the M3 past the university, and you enter a world of electronic gates, high walls and security notices. Here, paranoia is all.

Inside the ground, in its wondrous natural setting, the atmosphere is friendlier and more congenial. All sorts of South African are here, as well as many thousands from the British Isles, enticed by the January sunshine and a currency which is declining faster than the South African batting.

Day One. The sun beats down from a bottomless azure sky, while the pitch is the colour of bleached concrete. A batting day if ever there was. For once, Cook wins at the toss. He then goes early to a blinding catch, but Hales leaves with unusual care, building to 60. But he gets out when set, and others – Compton, Root – follow, while Taylor goes immediately to a poor shot. At 223 for 5 in the 68th, the day is in the balance. But it ends with Stokes and Bairstow powerfully settling in against the new ball, while never quite hinting at the carnage which is to follow.

It is trite now to say that Ben Stokes is a gifted batsman. Everyone has seen what he can do. But the loose limbed sixes, the balls which, on small grounds like Taunton, appear to be destined for orbit, are only part of it. To fully appreciate what he is capable of, watch him early, settling in, when in form. He must be in form because if he isn't he will more than likely be out before you have had a chance to form an opinion. He plays very straight and the ball leaves the bat with a rhythmical ease of timing which you only see from the very, very best. Later, when he's really in – and this can happen quicker than you realize – the timing is cast aside in favour of raw brutality, and this, in the first three hours of the second day, is what we get. Bairstow, who is still at this point trying hard to establish himself, provides dutiful support, before opening out when he's past his first Test hundred. Simply put, nobody in the ground has seen anything like it before. Self-awareness can be hard to find at times like this, but at a point quite early on, as I sit in the shade and watch cricket from the Gods in a temperature and crystalline light which carries an air of unreality when you have departed the gloom of the British winter just a few days before, I take a few moments between balls to focus on the fact that, seriously, life cannot get much better.

With a range of records cast to the winds that drift in off the mountains during a typical Newlands afternoon, South Africa have no choice but to bat long. After early losses, on a pitch without demons, this is what they do. Amla sniffs the ball with exaggerated care as he tries to piece together his muscle memory and recover his lost form, while always having the time to dismiss the bad ball from his presence with an elegance given to few. For the next day or so, the game seems to have entered a kind of stasis.

More than a day later, Amla is out. From the raised area at the back of the Railway Terrace, within earshot of the trains and the brewery, the dismissal is largely unseen. In this environment it is easy for minds to wander. Another wicket quickly follows, and then, with a hint of trouble in the air, Temba Bavuma is at the wicket. A Cape Town boy, born in the year of Mandela's release, he carries the air of a child among men, at least until he starts piercing the field. De Kock soon goes but, between his fall and tea, Bavuma, with a succession of compact drives and pulls, sets down a marker, while, in partnership with the debutant Chris Morris, bringing the balance of the game back within South Africa's reach. At the time a few people compare the neatness and self-possession of Bavuma to what the early stages of a Sachin Tendulkar innings were like. This seems a little fanciful. It is probably his tiny stature which prompts this as much as anything he does with the bat, but it is a sign. Here is a black African who can obviously bat, but this is not enough. People want, people need, him to succeed. To cement his place in the side in a way that no other man of his race, apart from Makhaya Ntini (and batting was never his strong suit), has ever done.

Later on the fourth day, as the torpid heat settles on the ground like a blanket, everything slows again as Bavuma gains on his century. Then, with five o'clock behind us and the shadows beginning to lengthen, he edges a drive at Finn wide of the only slip left to complete the first Test century for South Africa by a black batsman. It is coincidental and appropriate that by this stage Rabada has joined him, and in the lower tier of the President's Pavilion, the crowd – or at least those who are truly aware that they are witnessing history – rise to acclaim it.

Amla, in what will turn out to be one of his last decisive acts as South Africa's captain, declares almost immediately, with his side two runs behind.

The final day dawns cooler but more humid. The increased cloud cover encourages the South African bowlers, and England rapidly lose three wickets. After lunch they are falteringly drawn into an unexpected battle for survival. A match that, while it has contained moments of huge excitement and deep significance, has lacked any sustained dramatic tension, comes to life before sliding to a damp grave as the light closes in and rain briefly falls.

On trips like this life moves on quickly. There are buses to catch, cruises round a windswept harbour to negotiate, farewell dinners to enjoy. And, when you return to the English winter, which has become colder and harsher in your brief absence, the reality that such experiences are outliers in your life hits home. But this is no bad thing. The mundanity of normality provides the contrast against which times like these can be fully enjoyed for what they are.

From the Cape the teams travel to the country's higher northern latitudes. England secure the series in Johannesburg, before being cast aside at Centurion by a combination of their own fading focus and the bowling of Rabada, who starts to look like a prospect for the ages.

In Cape Town, although the mighty Stokes punishes him hard, he has periodically impressed with his lithe action and deceptive pace, but he has been overshadowed by his compatriot Bavuma. At Johannesburg and Centurion it becomes apparent that South Africa have a bowler around whom, as the era of the great Steyn draws to a close, they can build their recovery to the world game's heights.

It is too obvious, and it is also unrealistic and dangerous, to try to draw parallels and significances between what is happening to a country's cricket team and what is happening in the country itself. The rise of Bavuma and Rabada tells a small but possibly illusory truth about the evolution of South African society as it is reflected by cricket. Although Bavuma began life in Langa, the low-slung township you see as you drive from the airport towards central Cape Town, both he and Rabada had the benefit of being educated at church schools in Johannesburg where cricket played a central role in the sporting curriculum.

For most of South Africa's population, the world is not like this. But even from a short visit, impressions and memories beyond the priceless feeling of warm sun on the face in early January, can be taken away. While the District Six Museum portrays the worst which South Africa's bleak past threw up, its displays are far more about the multi-faceted nature of a society. Banners and photographs feature cricketers and their teams. Messages are sent, one of which is that, although in the years of division they were not allowed to compete on equal terms, cricket was always a vital and important part of black and coloured society. Whatever their adolescent privileges, Bavuma and Rabada are the heirs to a noble and resilient tradition.

Like so many other traditions, though, apartheid tried to crush it. For years players had to move abroad to get anywhere. However, these were not always players from the majority communities. On the third afternoon of the Newlands Test there is a ceremony on the outfield. Commemorative 'heritage blazers' are presented by Cricket South Africa to players from the old days who never had the chance to represent a united country. Among the unfamiliar local names there are players who, to someone of a certain age and mindset, are instantly recognizable from county cricket – Steve Jefferies of Hampshire, Ken McEwan of Essex, others. Sporting isolation affected everyone. It is little wonder – and it is entirely right – that England and South Africa compete in Test matches for the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.

For all the feeling that it has advanced and stabilized, South African society remains unequal, turbulent and confusing, But then so, increasingly, is the whole world. A sensation of hesitant advancement is perhaps the best that can be hoped for, both on the cricket field and away from it.

From this place and time I will always retain the memories of Robben Island, of Table Mountain, of District Six; of Stokes batting like there was going to be no tomorrow; of Bavuma passing his century and leaving the field, shortly after, with Rabada. A walk that was interrupted at frequent intervals by England players, aware of the moment, running to shake Bavuma's hand.

As I have already said, it is necessary to be careful not to draw too many conclusions from moments such as this. The older ills and wounds of the country will take longer to cure, but, from the way in which Bavuma signed autographs for a kaleidoscopic crowd of admirers outside the South African dressing room at Newlands after the game had been laid to rest, to Rabada's penetrative and mature bowling at Centurion, which hinted strongly at potential greatness, there are good signs for South African cricket.

For one reason or another, these boys are special. Watch them fly.

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