Aiden Markram wasn't even certain if he would be picked for the Under-19 World Cup. The South Africa U-19 batsman had unimpressive numbers in the last tournament the team played in, in Visakhapatnam, before the World Cup. A total of 73 runs in five innings was not on for an opening batsman. Then the unexpected happened. Not only was he picked for the World Cup, he was also named the captain. No wonder then that when the squad was announced, he said he was "shocked" and didn't know whether to feel happy or not.
Markram had been playing league games for the University of Pretoria, where he's studying sports management, and Titans U-19s in a franchise tournament when the squad was named. He was introduced to the captaincy in Visakhapatnam, where he captained two games and won both, including one against the hosts India. Yaseen Valli was the first-choice captain of the tour. Given Valli's fine form and all-round capabilities, though, the management thought it best to relieve him of the responsibility of leadership.
"Being the captain is a massive addition," Markram said after the semi-final in Dubai. "I knew it would be an awesome challenge and I will never step down to a challenge, and Yaseen helps me a lot on and off the field. It's like a dual thing we do."
The gamble has so far worked wonders for South Africa. Markram has hit more centuries than anybody else in the World Cup - two - and is currently third on the run charts with 304. As a captain he has been undefeated so far, and South Africa are one win away from claiming their first U-19 World Cup.
His tournament began quietly with the bat, with scores of 3 and 31, before he struck form with consecutive centuries, against Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. However, it was his 45 in the semi-final against tougher opposition - Australia - that had a greater impact. On paper, it would appear that he failed to convert a start, but he managed to nullify the effect of the new ball and reverse the malaise of top-order collapses that had plagued teams batting first in Dubai. The noon start would have made batting easier, and Markram and Clyde Fortuin seized early control with an opening stand of 105. Markram had set the example he wanted at the top.
"From an opening perspective it's tough," Markram said when asked how he plans his innings. "You look to assess the deck and adapt to that, but I look to be quite compact early on. You see my strike-rate in the first 20 balls, there's not a high percentage of runs, but I don't mind that at all. I back myself to catch up later in my innings."
Markram grew up in Pretoria where he studied at Cornwall Hill College before moving to Pretoria Boys High School. His love for the outdoors led him to taking up rugby and cricket. His dad, who works as a sales executive, played rugby for the Bulls and that fueled his son's love for the sport. For Markram, cricket was always his first love with rugby "not too far behind."
As Markram prepares for the biggest match of his life, he hopes his calm demeanour can filter down to the rest of his team. "At this stage of the tournament, the team that panics is the one that's going to lose. I like to try and keep them [team-mates] as calm as possible," he said. "Even if we are on top, we need to keep our feet on the ground instead of sitting back."
In an ICC video shot before the tournament, Markram was asked to list three words that best described him. "Positive, confident and responsible," was the reply. When asked who in the team was "most hurt after a loss", he said it was him. He hasn't experienced defeat in this World Cup and, come Saturday, he will hope he continues to go unscathed.