Who gives a toss about being SA’s World Cup opening bat?

Sport

Who gives a toss about being SA’s World Cup opening bat?

Aiden Markram does. Stunning Test form aside, he is in danger of being the forgotten man of the ODI showcase

Journalist


A kid walks into a bar. He looks around and smiles, and seems thoroughly at home. The bar is inside the press box the kid walks into – at Newlands on March 3 2014.
He sneaks a look out of the vast glass wall that fronts the box, where SA have lost their top four for 121 in pursuit of Australia’s first innings of 494/7 declared.
The kid is Aiden Markram, who two days earlier in Dubai has done what none of the South Africans on the other side of the glass had or indeed have yet done: won a World Cup.
As captain of SA’s under-19 team Markram was central to the effort that culminated in victory, by six wickets, over Pakistan in the final.
Markram is poised and confident in his press conference. Who wouldn’t be in the afterglow of winning a World Cup? But he can’t stop himself from looking out at the ground more than once. Maybe one day …
That day has come.
Markram has played 17 Tests and 16 one-day internationals. He has scored four centuries among his 1,358 runs in Tests, in which he averages 43.80. Only five times have batters in all of Test cricket reached 1,000 runs in fewer innings than his 18. One of them is Graeme Smith, who got there in 17.
So far so good.
But, in the other stuff, not so much.
And, as Markram won’t need reminding, in a World Cup year the other stuff matters more than anything. Sixteen ODIs have brought him 407 runs at 25.43 and only one half-century. Other than that he’s been in the 40s just once and has yet to face more than 60 balls.
And to think, in his 31 Test innings, he’s been past 100 deliveries nine times and 200 thrice. That, mind, opening the batting in what would be the far more demanding format even if SA hadn’t developed a taste for preparing Test pitches that don’t give a damn about their batters.
The facts that Markram is no plodder, blessed with a solid technique and a fluid approach, that he is intelligent and astute and possessed of an array of strokes, only deepen the mystery.
How can a player who has all that dwindle as an ODI entity even as he veers close to scoring centuries in three of his last seven Test innings? So much so that he has been left out of the squad for the first three games of the last ODI series SA will play before the World Cup.
He only has to think back to 2014 to know how it can all go wrong so quickly, or not even start. Weeks after doing his bit to win the under-19 World Cup, Ray Jennings was dumped as coach. And, of the 16 players in that squad, only Markram, Kagiso Rabada and Andile Phehlukwayo have graduated to the senior international ranks.
Markram, then, had to do something. On Friday, he did – hammering 169 at No 5 for the Titans against the Cobras in a list A game in Cape Town. On Sunday, exactly five years after that day at Newlands, he opened against the Warriors at St George’s Park and stroked 139. Three days, two innings and 308 runs – just 99 short of what he has scored in eight times as many trips to the crease in ODIs for SA.
The levels, of course, are not on the same planet. But the selectors know that.
“We told all of the players who were not in this [ODI] squad to go back and perform for their franchises, and he’s done exactly that,” an appreciative selection convenor, Linda Zondi, said on Monday.
The selectors also know Markram can play, and in any format. Thing is, they need to be satisfied he will be able to give of his best in England in May, June and July. That’s a gamble, but what is selecting if not gambling? Happily for Zondi and his panel they don’t have to stake their houses on who they pick.
So let’s not get any ideas based on who they come up with for the last two ODIs on March 13 and 16: “If Markram is not in the squad for the last two that doesn’t mean he’s not in the World Cup squad. It also won’t mean that he is in the World Cup squad. We thought we would be able to pick our World Cup squad for this series but we haven’t been able to because of injuries.”
That’s three mentions of “World Cup” in three consecutive sentences. Clearly, Zondi is intently focused on making sure all the nuts and bolts are as tight as they could possibly be before the squad is named next month.
“Some of us don’t even sleep these days,” he said.
Markram no doubt knows just what that feels like.

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