Aiden Markram's unfinished business in the subcontinent
Aiden Markram is not your average 24 year-old professional cricketer.
He has no sleeve tatts, and no T20 contracts. His social media game seems something of an afterthought. Three tweets this year, nine Instagram posts, and modest follower numbers: 36.5K on Insta, and just 18K on Twitter. He is, at least, verified.
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Markram's focus is clearly elsewhere.
Being the only South African captain ever to lift a World Cup trophy, as leader of the Under-19 team in 2014, he is in a group of one. And since then, Markram's reputation as a mature head on young shoulders has only grown.
He is one of only four members of the South African Test squad in India under the age of 25, but he has the aura of a seasoned veteran. It's easy to forget that Markram is only two years into his international career, and in that short space of time he has become central to South Africa's plans, particularly in Test cricket. He could be central to their success - or otherwise - in the three upcoming Tests in India.Aiden's passport said he was 18 but he spoke and carried himself like a 23-year-old. He just had that mental capacity
South Africa's Under-19 World Cup winning coach Ray Jennings
Markram's previous experience of playing against India - at home last year - was, in his own words, "a massive step up". Playing India in India is another level. His technique and his composure will be tested in unique and unforgiving ways.
Markram has experienced similar conditions before, and struggled. Indeed, he hasn't enjoyed himself much on previous trips to the subcontinent. South Africa's two-Test series in Sri Lanka last year is the only one in which he's failed to pass fifty even once, being dismissed four times in four innings by Rangana Herath.
His previous trip to the island with the South African emerging side in 2015 was little better, bringing a modest 179 runs in six innings. It seems that the turning ball worries Markram, and that will not have escaped the attention of the likes of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in the Indian Test squad.
South Africa aren't worried though. They know Markram was the teenager who not only survived, but positively prospered under coach Ray Jennings' famously disciplinarian rearing of the Under-19 side. "Aiden's passport said he was 18 but he spoke and carried himself like a 23-year-old," Jennings told The Cricket Monthly, approvingly. "He just had that mental capacity."
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Now, just days short of his 25th birthday (which will arrive smack bang in the middle of the first Test this week), Markram carries himself like a 30-year-old. With a Test squad stacked with fresh faces, South Africa will also need him to play like one and he enters the three-Test series as South Africa's top ranked Test batsman, at No. 10, just ahead of Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis at Nos. 11 and 12 respectively.On Wednesday, Markram's life will be coming full circle. It was in Vizag that he played his first games for the Under-19 side.
His opening partner, Dean Elgar, floundered on the last trip to India, with a high score of 38 and a tour average under 20. Theunis de Bruyn, at first drop, is only nine Tests into his career. India will sense South Africa's vulnerabilities at the top of the order. Someone will have to step up.
Channeling the spirit of Jennings and putting in the hard yards to get himself ready, Markram arrived in India well ahead of time with the A side, clearly a ploy to get him thoroughly acclimatised ahead of the Tests. This isn't his first trip to India - when the Proteas line up for the first Test at Visakhapatnam on Wednesday, Markram will in fact be coming full circle and back to where it all started for him as a professional cricketer. It was in this city that he played his first games for the Under-19 side, playing twice at the ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium. He was back in India with Pretoria University for the Campus Cricket World Finals four years ago.
But this latest trip has brought Markram his very first hundreds anywhere on the subcontinent. He tuned up with 161 against India A at Mysore, defying Kuldeep Yadav and a spin-heavy attack, and followed that up with another ton against an Indian Board President's XI at Vizianagaram last week.
"I don't want to be labelled as the guy who only does well in home conditions," Markram said ahead of South Africa's Test series against Sri Lanka last year. The results that followed, of course, did nothing to dispel that notion, and he now averages just 10 in Test cricket outside South Africa, albeit from a very small sample size.
This time around, on his second Test tour in Asia, Markram is trying to put the conditions out of his mind. "We're not going to harp on about conditions," he said last week, cruising to a 118-ball hundred and retiring to give his team-mates some time in the middle.
Markram has captained every South African team he's played for, from age-group level, through university, to provincial, franchise, A side, and the Proteas one-day outfit. The Test captaincy seems an almost inevitable part of his destiny too. The time has not yet come for that honour, but South Africa will be hoping that Markram can show leadership with the bat in the weeks to come, and be anything but your average 24 year-old professional cricketer.