In a big call, with the 2019 World Cup in mind, South Africa have unveiled Aiden Markram, all of two ODIs old, as their 50-overs captain for the remaining five ODIs against India in the absence of the injured Faf du Plessis.
Markram will be second-youngest player to captain South Africa in ODIs. He has previously led the Under-19 side, with whom he won the world title in 2014, his franchise, the Titans, and the South African A team as well. "Part of our plan is to make sure we look at our Vision 2019 and also making sure that part of our plan is to develop young leaders in view of the post-2019 plans," Linda Zondi, the selection convenor said. "I think Aiden fit in."
Markram is among the most inexperienced members of the squad. Only Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada are younger, and only Ngidi and Khaya Zondo have played fewer matches. "We are aware that Markram is new to our set-up," Zondi said. "Part of our plan is to also build that pool of leaders within the set-up. I think Markram has always been in our plans since he was U-19 captain, leading up to SA A, and now joining the Proteas. Yes, there will be pressure in terms of him maybe understanding his role and also being able to perform as a player. For us, we want to see if he can handle pressure, because part of leadership is to be able to adjust and perform under pressure. We think he has the right skill and the right capability to do so."
Markram has been chosen ahead of more established players such as Hashim Amla (he might have been reluctant to take up the job again), Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy and David Miller. "Yes, it can be an intimidating thing," Markram said of the prospect of leading the seniors. "But the culture in the team is so good. It allows for a young player like myself to go and engage with a guy like Hashim Amla, who's a legend of the game. It makes it a lot easier for me, it's not something I see as intimidating.
"I'll keep Hash close to my side in the field, and obviously other experienced players as well. It's going to be something very exciting, it's going to be a new challenge. But it's a positive challenge to look forward to."
Zondi singled out Markram's ability to make independent decisions while also being open to advice as a quality that helped them make the decision. "His awareness of the game, his confidence when making decisions… To lead senior guys, it is always challenging when you are a young guy and you have to make decisions. He is the kind of guy, in our opinion, who is willing to open himself to advice. He has got that supporting structure around the team at the moment. We have got Hashim Amla and JP, guys who are going to be here. Captaincy is a special skill. You don't just wake up one morning and become a captain. He has been there, he has done that, it is a matter of us giving him an opportunity."
Markram has come up dreaming about captaining South Africa. "It's a big honour," he said. "Obviously as a little boy you grow up and you want to captain your country one day. Unfortunately for the team's sake, Faf misses out. It's a big loss to the side. But then the selectors showing confidence in me to take over, it means quite a bit. It's a super humbling experience, but yes, we're going to need to do this for Faf, I believe."
Markram heard he was in line for the job on Friday night, and once he confirmed he was willing to do it, the official decision was conveyed to him on Monday morning. "I managed to sleep, yeah," he said. "Luckily I really enjoy captaining. It's going to be an additional pressure to deal with, but I believe it's a good pressure. You get good and bad sort of pressures, and for me it's really a pressure that hopefully I can thrive on."
In addition to taking on du Plessis' responsibilities as leader of the side, Markram will also bat at No. 3 in the batting order. "Faf's sort of taken me under his wing since I've been involved in the environment," Markram said. "We've spoken a lot and this morning, throughout the training session I've been almost side by side, spending time chatting about plans, how he goes about things, and obviously passing on some advice to take into the game.
"I'll keep him close to me, he's luckily going to be here throughout the game. I'll keep sending messages on and off the field, asking for advice, asking for any hints. But at the end of the day, it's going to be my decision to make on the field, though. Fortunately, like Linda said, there's plenty of experience within the squad, and it won't be a decision made just by myself. I'll definitely consult the senior players, obviously for the better interest of the side as well."
Zondi won't commit if Markram will be named the vice-captain for the Australia series in March, but he said handing over the captaincy to him for the ODIs against India was not a difficult choice. "If AB de Villiers was around, and other senior players, we would have probably looked at different options. But at the moment, with both our so-called former captains not around, it was an ideal opportunity for us that here is Markram, let's see what he can offer. We are confident. He wants to do it as well. It just gives us an opportunity to open it up and see what he can offer."