Five months ago, Aiden Markram was believed to have turned down offers to play overseas. Markram was the captain and the Man of the Tournament when South Africa won the Under-19 World Cup in 2014. His team-mate Kagiso Rabada made much more rapid strides into international cricket, while Markram played for the less-fancied Northerns, and then Titans, where he was behind Heino Kuhn, Dean Elgar and Theunis de Bruyn in the queue. There was already a sense that Markram, all of 22, was losing out.
Markram was even asked, last September, by Rayder Media, if he would consider going Kolpak if things didn't work out in South Africa. "I'd never move overseas, I love South Africa far too much," Markram said. "I would enjoy doing a gig, wherever it might be in the world, to learn how to play in different conditions… (but) my heart and soul live in South Africa, and I would struggle to leave this country."
The world outside wondered who this prodigy was. One day, he is being touted as the man to lead South Africa into the future - somewhat in the way Virat Kohli was after his U-19 World Cup success as captain - and the other day, people have fears that he might choose clubs overseas. There were indeed offers, as Titans CEO Jacques Faul told Times Live in September 2017.
Five months later, we have already reached a stage where the decision-makers in South Africa are wondering if they handed over the national captaincy to him too early. Comparisons with Graeme Smith abounded when Markram was appointed the captain in the absence of the injured Faf du Plessis. Ahead of Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and David Miller. And he was not given the job for just two matches, after which AB de Villiers would come back. This arrangement was going to be for the whole series.
So, basically, Markram was preferred to de Villiers, Amla, Duminy and Miller, or possibly one or more in that list didn't want to take that responsibility. Markram had played two ODIs by then. Four matches later, Markram is the first captain to have lost a bilateral home series of any format to India. This is only the third time South Africa have lost a home ODI series of five matches or more. While Markram shouldn't have to take the blame for the thankless job of leading a severely depleted side - missing three gun players in two matches, two in two and one in one - his batting came in for comment from coach Ottis Gibson.
"Aiden Markram has been asked to captain and has shown glimpses," Gibson said. "I don't know if the whole responsibility around captaining has been too much for him. It's something I will have to review myself. But it seems he is trying to bat in a way that is not the Aiden Markram I saw in September. I've spoken to him about that."
Gibson is right too. Markram has batted like a man wanting to impose himself. There have been periods - he has had scores of 32, 22 and 32 - when he has looked the part as an ODI opener, but he has made mistakes. Twice, he has fallen at crucial junctures. A low-percentage attempted flick got him out moments before players went off for rain in Johannesburg, the wicket increasing the revised DLS target. In Port Elizabeth, they had a great opportunity to, for the first time in the series, go to spin with two batsmen already used to the pace of the pitch. In the last over of the Powerplay, though, Markram holed out to mid-on, looking for his sixth boundary in 32 balls.
It is a bit like being in the field. His biggest imprints have been two sensational catches. When it comes to changing fields, Markram is seen relying on inputs from de Villiers and Amla. That decisiveness is not yet there. Almost as if he is not yet sure of himself, as if he wants to command that leader's role through domineering performances. It is understandable too. You want to earn captaincy, no matter how many leadership qualities you have shown at junior levels, no matter how many times you have been identified as the future captain. You don't want the job by default, and if you do, you can be overeager to show you deserved it.
A closer view of Markram's captaincy comes from Amla. "I've been very impressed with Aiden on the field," Amla said. "He is very composed, and has a good idea of what he would like. As a captain, if you don't score runs, then the first thing that gets attributed to you is, 'Oh, the captaincy has affected your batting.' It certainly happened when I was captain, and I've seen the same cliche for other guys. Aiden is still young in international cricket. He's a world-class player. He's got starts, and I have full confidence that the more he captains, the easier it will get for him."
Markram's face does a good job of hiding any emotion, but it must be a confusing, uncertain time for the debutant-too-late to captain too soon. Before the ODIs began, he wasn't even sure if he would get a game. Even when de Villiers got injured, he was in direct competition with Khaya Zondo for a middle-order slot. That Markram, a top-order batsman, was chosen ahead of a natural middle-order batsman says a lot about how South Africa's leadership regards Markram. They will go out of their way to give him a chance.
And now they are wondering if the responsibility was too much for him to handle. While it was a rare admission from decision-makers at that level, Gibson doesn't want to revisit the call. "This was a decision for the future, not a decision for now," Gibson said. "Aiden has shown all the hallmarks of someone who is going to be a good leader, and with Faf out, we thought we could give him that opportunity. Looking back, I think it was the right decision. I'm not going to second-guess myself."
Gibson doesn't make any guarantees that allowances will be made for this unusual circumstance when the next selection is made and everyone is fit. On Friday, Markram will walk out to his home ground, also where he took over captaincy, with one last chance to impose himself, unsure if he is going to be part of the next ODI squad if South Africa are back to full strength. It's not a dead rubber for Markram.