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QANTAS TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA

Markram's Test start among game's best

07 March 2018
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How the only man to lead South Africa to a World Cup title went from eager spectator to Test century-maker in just four years

About the Writer:
 @ARamseyCricket

Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for cricket.com.au. He previously wrote for the Guardian, The Australian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the author of The Wrong Line.

It was during Australia’s previous Test match tour to South Africa – in itself, an occasion as often recalled for on-field animosities as for outstanding cricket – that Aiden Markram caught a clear glimpse of his future.

The final Test of that three-match campaign ended amid gripping drama, as Australia plucked a last-gasp win to sour the farewell of Proteas' captain Graeme Smith and almost overshadow an earlier verbal spat between Michael Clarke and Dale Steyn that remained unresolved for years.

And temporarily douse the heat directed at South Africa's current Test skipper Faf du Plessis that had led him to, perhaps ill-advisedly as events transpired, liken the Australians' on-field demeanour to that of a "pack of dogs".

Privy to the third day action of that match from their exalted accommodation in a private suite of the Newlands Cricket Grounds President's Pavilion were the blazer-clad members of South Africa’s under-19 squad who had, two days earlier, triumphed in the final of ICC's prestigious junior World Cup.

South Africa's Under-19 World Cup champions at Newlands in 2014 // Getty
South Africa's Under-19 World Cup champions at Newlands in 2014 // Getty

The heroes of that widely trumpeted win, the first success for the Rainbow Nation in a cricket World Cup at any level, were the tournament’s leading wicket-taker Kagiso Rabada and their captain and opening bat Markram, who was named player of the series.

As he led his euphoric team on a lap of the picturesque ground during the tea break on day three, Markram doubtless dreamed he would one day earn a place in his nation’s Test outfit and perhaps the chance to have a crack at their fiercest rivals.

But even if he had dared to imagine that moment might arrive in less than four years when the Australians made their quadrennial visit, surely he would have recognised as pure fantasy an inkling that he would score a century in his maiden Test appearance against such a vaunted foe.

Yet that's what the now 23-year-old batter did at Kingsmead last weekend, and while the wash-up of that game was eerily similar to its Cape Town predecessor – a famous Australian win amid a raging player behavior controversy – Markram's fleeting experience of 2014 seemed to have steeled him for what he was to face.

A baby-faced Markram celebrates South Africa's World Cup triumph // Getty
A baby-faced Markram celebrates South Africa's World Cup triumph // Getty

Which was, in no particular order, the most potent all-round bowling attack in Test cricket today, a sustained verbal onslaught after he was a central figure in the run-out of South Africa’s most influential player AB de Villiers, and a seemingly hopeless fourth-innings pursuit of 417.

"You hear every word out on the field, but I don’t speak back," Markram said shortly after he was dismissed for 143 in the gloaming of day four as South Africa stared bleakly at defeat.

"I just try to get on with what I do.

"It's part of the Australian side to keep chatting to batters.

"They keep coming at you, which is good.

I enjoy the chat from the Aussies: Markram

"It keeps me going, keeps me in my plan.

"I believe that's how the game should be played, nice and hard, and it makes success all that more rewarding as well."

In the days since Markram's lads lifted the World Cup (having defeated an Australia line-up including Billy Stanlake in a semi-final, and then Pakistan for the trophy), cricket has been dominated by the 'big four' of Test batters.

Australia's Steve Smith, India's Virat Kohli, England's Joe Root and New Zealand's Kane Williamson, all of whom currently lead their respective nations despite none of them yet having turned 30.

Markram's brave knock at Kingsmead ended on 143 // Getty
Markram's brave knock at Kingsmead ended on 143 // Getty

He might be just seven matches into a Test career that promises much, but it's not beyond the realms of reality that Markram might some day soon find himself being included in those conversations.

The technically pure right-hander has scored more runs in his first seven Tests (695) than any of those listed above, and his productivity as a Test opener over that tenure is exceeded only by India pair Sunil Gavaskar (918) and Sadagoppan Ramesh (783), Australia's Mark Taylor (787) and England's Herbert Sutcliffe (780).

Among rookie openers, Markram's three centuries from seven starts is bettered only by Gavaskar and Sutcliffe across 140 years of Test cricket.

And his current average of 57.92 dwarfs those of Smith (32.31), Kohli (27.15), Root (38.25) and Williamson (33.46) as they found their feet in their first seven Tests, with none of them regularly asked to combat the opposition's fresh fast bowlers armed with a brand new ball.

Day four wrap: Aussies one wicket away from victory

It's therefore no surprise that the Australia brainstrust will have Markram's name near the top of the list when they begin their detailed planning for the second Test of the Qantas Tour of South Africa, which begins at Port Elizabeth on Friday.

"I think he’s a fine young player – a very good hundred against a quality attack," Bupa Support Team men’s coach Darren Lehmann said when asked for an assessment of Markram’s contribution in Durban that also yielded 32 in the Proteas' first innings.

"We’ve got to look at how we bowl to him.

"In the first innings we thought the short ball was a real weapon for us, and we still think that’s the case.

"But we’ll come up with a few different plans for him moving forward in Port Elizabeth."

Lehmann backs Warner as vice-captain

The esteem in which Markram is held in South Africa is summed up by last month’s decision to – when du Plessis suffered a fractured finger – install him as captain of the nation's ODI outfit even though he had just two international matches to his name in the 50-over format.

Leading a unit that included such decorated veterans as Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir, Markram admits he struggled to come to grips with the role and its responsibilities, and his form duly suffered.

With an aggregate of 118 runs from five matches in charge, which also yielded a solitary victory from five matches against the world's top-ranked ODI team, Markram found the experience more unsettling than unrewarding.

"It was quite a tricky stage for me, trying to establish myself in the side and then along with that trying to lead a very strong (Proteas) side, against a very strong Indian side," he said this week.

"So it was incredibly challenging for me.

Markram struggled with the bat as ODI skipper against India // Getty
Markram struggled with the bat as ODI skipper against India // Getty

"I found myself, in terms of batting, not all that much in the moment – it felt very rushed and a lot like a blur.

"For what reason I’m not so sure, I haven’t worked it out just yet.

"I’m sure captaincy did have a bit to do with it, but having said that it’s something I do really enjoy and going forward, if I was to establish myself in the one-day side, I just think it would become a little bit easier next time."

And there is expected to be many a "next time" given that the quietly driven 23-year-old already boasts an experience that no other South Africa cricket captain can claim – leading his team to victory in a World Cup campaign.

Qantas tour of South Africa

South Africa squad: Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Theunis de Bruyn, AB de Villiers, Dean Elgar, Heinrich Klaasen, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Morne Morkel, Wiaan Mulder, Lungi Ngidi, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada.

Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine, Jhye Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Mitchell Starc.

Warm-up match: Australia beat South Africa A by five wickets. Report, highlights

First Test Australia won by 118 runs. Scorecard

Second Test St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, March 9-13. Live coverage

Third Test Newlands, Cape Town, March 22-26. Live coverage

Fourth Test Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 30-April 3. Live coverage


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