Aiden Markram lets one go

"I'm not the next AB. I can only do things my own way"

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Aiden makes his mark

Get to know the man who will challenge Kohli, Root, Smith and Williamson

Daniel Gallan |

One evening in 134 BC, the great Roman general Scipio Aemilianus, destroyer of Carthage, hosted a dinner with several prominent officers in attendance. A sycophantic acolyte asked his commander where Rome would find another man capable of following in his footsteps. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, Scipio turned to the 23-year-old Gauius Marius, clasped him on the shoulder and answered: "Perhaps here."

Playing what would be the last Test of his career, at the Wanderers earlier this year, AB de Villiers was far from his fluent best. Against an Australian attack visibly impacted by the ball-tampering scandal, one of the great batsmen of all time offered glimpses of his genius but was otherwise scratchy for his 69.

At the other end, something astounding was happening. Aiden Markram, also 23, was showing up his illustrious team-mate, unfurling picturesque cover drives and unleashing crunching pull shots on his way to 152. It was hard not to see the passage of play as a symbolic changing of the guard.

"It was the best innings I've ever played," Markram says when we meet in May, at his favourite coffee shop in Pretoria. "I've never been a guy who jumps up and celebrates but that meant a lot to me."

Markram exudes the natural good-natured humility that is so valued in Afrikaans culture. He doffs his cap when shaking my hand, praises the achievements of the team when fielding questions concerning his own exploits, and blushes slightly at the notion that he out-batted one of his boyhood heroes. "We need to understand that there is not going to be another AB de Villiers," he says. "I'm not the next AB. I can only do things my own way."

Even he concedes, though, that he now registers a blip on the international circuit.

Quickest South Africans to 1000 Test runs
Player Matches Innings Time
Graeme Smith 12 17 1y 145d
Aiden Markram 10 18 0y 183d
AB de Villiers 12 20 0y 364d
Eddie Barlow 11 21 2y 75d
Graeme Pollock 13 22 1y 242d
Faf du Plessis 15 23 1y 236d
Quinton de Kock 15 23 2y 317d

Casual fans had first taken notice of Markram back in 2014, when he became the first South African captain to lift a cricket World Cup, as his Under-19 side triumphed in Dubai. He scored two centuries in the tournament, and in the final, against Pakistan, guided his team home with an unbeaten 66. When he debuted in Test cricket three years later, being run-out three short of a century, one grizzled journalist cooed: "South Africa hasn't had an opener like this since Barry Richards."

Still less than a year into his international career, Markram is the youngest batsman among the ICC's top 20 and looks the most obvious contender to challenge Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson at the top of the pile. He has already captained his country in one-day internationals and scored 1000 runs with four hundreds in ten Tests.

But the hype, the runs, the easy-going nature and good looks can paint a distorted picture. They conceal another thread of Markram's narrative, which is tinged with insecurity and self-doubt.

Markram grew up in a sports-mad home with supportive parents in a wealthy estate in Pretoria. His natural talent flourished in the elite sports institution that is Pretoria Boys High School, alma mater of the allrounder Chris Morris and rugby World Cup-winning captain John Smit.

Despite ending his school career as one of the leading batsmen in his province in 2012, Markram was not selected for the Northern Gauteng side that competed in that year's Khaya Majola Coca-Cola Week. The snub felt like a punch in the gut for an ambitious youngster. Markram couldn't understand why his obvious talent had gone unrewarded. He considered quitting the game, and was only pulled from the brink by a family friend who had the means to offer a lifeline.

Pierre de Bruyn, who played 91 first-class and 108 List A matches for a number of sides in South Africa, spent a fair amount of time tossing balls back over his wall as the Markrams' long-time neighbour. When he retired in 2010, de Bruyn turned to coaching and was appointed director of cricket at the University of Pretoria (colloquially known as Tuks). Two years into the job, he had a conversation that would shape the future of South African cricket.

The World Cup winner: Markram's leadership skills were identified at the Under-19 level and he is seen as a future South African captain,  but his first taste of leading the senior side was bitter

The World Cup winner: Markram's leadership skills were identified at the Under-19 level and he is seen as a future South African captain, but his first taste of leading the senior side was bitter © IDI/Getty Images

"It was just after Aiden missed out on Coke Week, which had knocked him a hell of a lot," says de Bruyn, who spent six years at the university. "He doubted himself and was in a dark space. But I knew how good he could be, so I did everything to convince him to give cricket another go with me at Tuks in the new year."

With his immediate future more secure, Markram travelled to the seaside town of Umhlanga in good spirits to celebrate the end of high school in December. "I was having a lekker [great] time with my mates and taking it easy when my phone rang," Markram says. "Luckily I hadn't had any beers yet because Ray Jennings started speaking."

As coach of the South African U-19 side, Jennings had looked on in disbelief as the traditionally strong Northern Gauteng side struggled with the bat against weak opposition. A vocal critic of selection policies in schools cricket, Jennings refused to accept that what was on show was representative of the best that was out there. He asked around and discovered that a free-flowing stroke-maker had scored plenty of runs for Pretoria Boys High School - a powerhouse in the region - but had failed to get a look in. Jennings got the boy's number and called immediately.

"I said, 'I've heard good things about you; I want you to stay fit and I'll take a proper look at you in March at one of my camps,'" Jennings remembers. "I was instantly impressed, not only with Aiden's batting but with his mannerism and attitude. You can just tell when you've got a special player."

"I've never tried to ignore my insecurities as a player. I've always felt a sense of self-doubt no matter what level I've played" Aiden Markram

In the space of a few months Markram's world had changed. From considering abandoning the game altogether, he now found himself consumed by it. Between Tuks and training sessions with the national side he "lived, breathed and ate cricket" as he puts it, and his game exploded under the technical guidance of de Bruyn and the mentorship of Jennings.

"His mental game caught up with his abilities and he took off," de Bruyn says. "Once he learned to accept that he couldn't score a hundred in every game, he became a lot more relaxed. He would play the game with purpose but wouldn't let the results weigh him down."

In September that year, much to the chagrin of CSA, Markram was included in the U-19 squad that travelled to India. Jennings reveals that several suits at CSA headquarters weren't too pleased with the brash coach running roughshod over the provincial set-up.

The decision seemed to have backfired when Markram managed only 73 runs from five matches with a high score of 25. Despite the poor showing, and ignoring the protests of his employers, Jennings returned to South Africa and declared Markram his captain for the World Cup in February.

"I didn't make too many friends with that decision," Jennings says. "The selectors thought I was crazy, but I knew what he was capable of. The thing with talent identification is, you look at a kid's age in his passport and compare it with the age in his brain. Aiden's passport said he was 18 but he spoke and carried himself like a 23-year-old. He just had that mental capacity."

The rest is history. A World Cup triumph was followed by two consecutive Red Ball Campus Cricket championships with Tuks in 2014 and 2015 - the first under the captaincy of Theunis de Bruyn, the second under Markram's own. From there, he worked his way into Mark Boucher's star-studded Titans side ahead of the 2016-17 domestic season. In ten matches for the franchise over two seasons, he has plundered 1004 runs at 66.9 with three hundreds and six fifties.

Markram and the maestro: getting a hundred against Australia in the company of AB de Villiers in Johannesburg

Markram and the maestro: getting a hundred against Australia in the company of AB de Villiers in Johannesburg © Getty Images

In September last year, after Stiaan van Zyl, Stephen Cook and Heino Kuhn were unable to make the opening slot their own, Markram was asked by new South Africa coach Ottis Gibson to open the batting for a bumper home summer of Test cricket. The nation was presented with a new golden boy, one with the potential to carry the side for a generation.

The accolades and universal praise have only masked the uncertainty that has stayed with Markram since that bitter disappointment as a high schooler. As de Bruyn recounts, this is an ever-present part of Markram that not too many people know about.

"When we first started working together I saw a very confused young man. He didn't trust his game and struggled to combine the responsibilities of opening the batting with his natural instincts. He would beat himself up when he went out playing a poor shot, and didn't take it well when the side would lose. He had the talent but something was blocking him."

Markram had to learn to enjoy the struggle. It is hard to understand for those of us not blessed with talent from the top drawer, but expectations and promise can provide pressures of their own. For a cerebral young man such as Markram, overthinking became a much tougher opponent than any menacing quick he would ever face. As Daryll Cullinan once told the Cricket Monthly: "Batting is a life of torment. It's a life of self-persecution. It's a love-hate relationship."

"I've never tried to ignore my insecurities as a player," Markram says. "I've always felt a sense of self-doubt no matter what level I've played. But I have always had the determination to back myself and to work through the difficult periods. That doubt drives me to be better."

After decimating the feeble Bangladesh and Zimbabwe line-ups, Markram began 2018 by taking guard against a quality Indian seam attack on beefed-up surfaces. Though he failed to reach double figures in four of his six innings, his 94 in Centurion was the highest score by a South African in the three Tests and helped claim the series-clinching victory.

Where other top South Africa batsmen were after tenTests
Batsmen Runs Avg 50-plus scores
Jacques Kallis 340 22.66 2
Graeme Smith 637 49 4
Hashim Amla 455 23.94 3
AB de Villiers 841 52.56 6
Gary Kirsten 568 37.36 3
Aiden Markram 1000 55.55 7

When Faf du Plessis fractured his finger in the first ODI between the two sides in Durban, South Africa were short of obvious replacements as captain. Surely asking Markram to front up against Virat Kohli and the best white-ball team in the world would be too much in only his third ODI?

"When I saw Ottis' number on my phone the day before the second match, I assumed he was going to ask me to bat at No. 3," Markram says. "I had no idea he wanted me to captain but I didn't hesitate and grabbed it with open arms. Looking back, though, I don't think I was the right person for the job."

Four crushing defeats and one conciliatory win again clouded Markram's mind with self-doubt. He struggled to drive his team to a standard that could match India's mesmerising spinners and his game suffered as a result. In Centurion he spooned a half-tracker straight to the man in the deep; in Cape Town he danced down the track and landed in a different area code to the pitch of the ball; in Port Elizabeth he toe-ended an ugly swipe that saw him lose his wicket just as he was gaining steam. For his university coach, it was a familiar sight.

"He looked to be playing with the same confusion that was holding him back all those years ago," de Bruyn says. "I could tell that his head wasn't in the right space by the shots he was playing. When Aiden is sure of himself he hits the ball with intent, he defends with intent, he leaves with intent. Those dismissals showed he was caught in two minds."

Markram explains that the pressures of captaincy and the desire to lead his country to victory impacted his ability to focus on his batting. "I forgot that when I had a bat in my hand my main job was to be a batsman," he says. "It was a blur out in the middle and the captaincy played too much on my mind."

"I let myself, the team and the country down but what I learned will stay with me. I'd love to get the chance to captain again" Markram

De Bruyn says that watching his young protégé struggle made him fear the worst; that there would be lasting psychological scars. Markram himself admits that February 2018 was "the toughest" of his life, but is determined to make the most of that experience. "I let myself, the team and the country down, but what I learned will stay with me. I'd love to get the chance to captain again."

There is little doubt that he will, and one wonders what sort of captain the softly spoken, comfortably insecure Markram will make. The working model for successful South African captains since Hansie Cronje has been a macho one. Graeme "Biff" Smith, with his hulking frame and gruff voice, was a champion from another age, a Viking-like axe wielder who delighted in scything down English captains as much as he did in mercilessly piling up big scores. Du Plessis, the unattainably chiselled underwear model, is not averse to displaying his own brand of machismo, as he showed during the David Warner-Quinton de Kock spat: which other captain would cool tensions wearing nothing but a towel?

It is hard to imagine Markram being slapped with an aggressive moniker or defusing hostilities while flashing his pecs. Shaun Pollock, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers were all criticised as captains for not embodying the hyper-masculine South African boitjie [jock].

"Aiden will do things his own way. He doesn't need to puff his chest out and try and be something he is not," says Dean Elgar, whose union with Markram at the top of the order has been a lucrative one. "He already has a presence in the dressing room. When he speaks, senior players listen. There are different ways to gain respect."

"He has an aura," Elgar elaborates. "He's a special talent but there's no arrogance about him. You can see that that in the small ways he interacts with everyone in the team and is happy to be the drinks pourer in fines meetings. He's like AB in that way."

Less than two weeks after the disaster that was the ODI series against India, Markram again found himself in an uncomfortable position. Needing 378 runs to win the first Test against Australia in Durban, Markram's confusion resulted in the run-out of de Villiers, who was yet to get off the mark.

Markram is likely to be a key figure for South Africa in next year's World Cup in England

Markram is likely to be a key figure for South Africa in next year's World Cup in England © Getty Images

The Australians, led by Warner, piled into Markram and let him know, in no uncertain terms, just how costly his mistake would be. "I can't quite repeat what they said to me but it felt like there were 1000 of them, not just 11," Markram says.

Rather than shrink into himself, the young man rose to the challenge and produced a fightback that was later described as a "coming of age" innings by prominent South African journalists. His 143 across 340 minutes was not enough to save the match but it showed that the South Africans could stand up to the celebrated Australian attack. More importantly, it showed that Markram could bounce back from adversity.

"That innings helped me going forward," he says. "I can't imagine a more challenging environment. I'd just run out the best batsman in the world and was getting so much abuse in front of my home fans. I made a decision to fight, and I'm proud that I was able to work and battle and struggle through it."

Since that series, Markram has struggled again. He failed to register a run in his first three innings in county cricket with Durham earlier this year. He followed the hat-trick of ducks with 94 in the second innings against Leicestershire to help secure victory.

He will struggle again with leadership, and he will struggle with his game. In the wake of de Villiers' retirement from international cricket, South Africa's chances of ending their World Cup drought in England next year have diminished, and Markram, a World Cup winner, will likely be the man tasked with ridding them of their "chokers" tag.

He will struggle, there is no doubt about that. What is equally certain is that he will square up to struggle in his own way, with a healthy dose of confidence and just enough self-doubt.

 

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