South Africa's batters will experience the best and the worst of run-scoring conditions in the UAE at the T20 World Cup, according to Aiden Markram. After spending the last four weeks with Punjab Kings in the UAE for the IPL, Markram has decided that conditions are easiest for batting in Abu Dhabi, and most difficult in Sharjah, but still tough across the venues.
"Each ground was different. That was something I didn't expect; I thought it would be quite generic. But each ground had its own set of challenges," Markram said. "The pitches weren't the easiest to bat on, but as the batter gets in he can still take the game away from the opposition. It's tougher for newer batters coming in. Sharjah was probably the toughest batting wicket out of the three here, and Abu Dhabi was probably the nicest to bat on."
South Africa open the Super 12 stage of the competition against Australia in Abu Dhabi before moving to Dubai to play West Indies and then to Sharjah and back to Abu Dhabi, for two games against qualifiers, and conclude the pool stage against England in Sharjah. Though South Africa are entering the tournament on the back of three successive T20I series wins, only one of those - against West Indies in June - was against opposition they will face in this event.
They have also lost to both Australia and England (twice) in T20I series in the Mark Boucher era and have historically tripped against both those teams in major tournaments. But Markram isn't dwelling too much on all that. "We're not bringing too much baggage into this World Cup. Everyone here is pretty free-spirited and not too fazed about being at a World Cup, in a good way. Everyone's very calm so far," he said.
But there are ghosts around this squad. Eight of them - nine if you include reserve Andile Phehlukwayo - were part of the 2019 50-over World Cup, where South Africa turned in their worst major tournament result and were the first team to be eliminated.
"Obviously we'll try not to make the same mistakes that we did in 2019, but this is a different format and completely different conditions, and we've got a completely different side," Markram said. "We haven't had too many chats about that World Cup. In 2019, when conditions didn't suit our plans, we almost didn't have other plans to fall back on. That's been addressed, and we've got a way of cricket we'd like to play against each team.
"But if conditions on the day don't allow for that we have to be smarter and have another plan to fall back on. Having the skill set to trust in that change of plan has been important. Over the last 12 to 18 months the team have up-skilled themselves. That's probably the biggest thing we can take from the 2019 World Cup."
Markram is one of the best examples of that. Since the 2019 World Cup, he has shown marked improvement against spin, had his best tour of the subcontinent when South Africa toured Pakistan earlier this year, has established himself in white-ball cricket and earned his first IPL deal, which taught him about batting in a different position in the shortest format. "It was a great experience. I was in a less familiar role and it was nice to be exposed to that at a high standard of cricket, and to learn on the job," Markram said.
"In T20 cricket, results come down to the last three overs if not the last ball. It was good to be exposed to that [at the IPL], because I'm sure games are going to go to the wire at the World Cup."
For South Africa, Markram has batted in the top three in nine out of 13 T20I innings, for Punjab Kings, he was at No. 4 or 5 five times in six innings. He found the main challenge of batting in the middle-order to be finding the balance between building an innings and taking on a finishing role. "Guys who consistently finish games well in terms of high strike rates and the ability to find the boundary having just walked to the crease is something I've got a new appreciation for," Markram said. "Because if you walk in and a team is 30 for 3, and you need to build a partnership to get to something that's half-defendable. Neither of those roles are easy."
Neither was the pressure of a tournament like the IPL. Punjab Kings finished sixth on the points table, after losing eight matches - three in this half of the competition. They also won three matches in this half and four of their six games were decided in the last over. "All our games were close. We would have liked to get over the line more times than we did," Markram said, indicating that the experience would come in handy ahead of the T20 World Cup.
"In T20 cricket, at a World Cup or domestic or international series, results come down to the last three overs if not the last ball. It was good to be exposed to that, because I'm sure games are going to go to the wire at the World Cup. It's about dealing with that pressure in the moment when two to three balls could change the whole outcome of the game."