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Match Analysis

Markram and a prodigal son kind of innings

SA batter with big future ahead of him re-establishes his credentials after a lean run of form in Test cricket

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Aiden Markram played several of his signature shots through the off side  •  AFP/Getty Images

Aiden Markram played several of his signature shots through the off side  •  AFP/Getty Images

"Fight comes from within," Aiden Markram told his SA20 team-mates after their third loss at the tournament. He was praising the effort they showed in their five-wicket defeat to Joburg Super Kings, when they came within two balls of successfully defending 127. "It was incredible how you guys fought, it's something you can't teach. Every single person gave their best and more today. We should be able to sleep fine."
He could have been talking about himself, and the way he responded after his last two years as a Test cricketer; two years which had been incredibly tough.
Since scoring a century against Pakistan, he went 16 innings without a hundred and in 15 of those, did not cross fifty. He was replaced by Sarel Erwee at the top of the order in New Zealand last February and only played at No. 3 because Keegan Petersen had contracted Covid-19 and could not make the trip. When more low scores followed, Markram was dropped from the Test side in England last year and then left out of their disastrous tour to Australia.
"It might have been a good thing," he said. "I was heartsore not to be in Australia but I was told quite clearly as to the reason why I wasn't on the tour. As batters, we need runs on the board and if you are not scoring runs in a team that wants to compete with the best in the world, your position should be under scrutiny."
Despite not playing any red-ball cricket since then, Markram was recalled for this series because new coach Shukri Conrad preferred him over Erwee and has given him the opportunity to try and reclaim the opening spot again. "It felt like starting out on a clean slate," Markram said.
And it looked like it too. After 10 dot balls to open the morning, Markram was gifted a delivery on his pads that he clipped past midwicket for South Africa's first runs of the match. He negotiated a decent new-ball spell from Alzarri Joseph, who got a few short deliveries to bounce at an awkward height but was taken off after four overs in favour of Kyle Mayers, who searched for swing. Mayers found Elgar's edge, and the chance was dropped, but Markram settled in. He reeled off a square drive and then a cover drive which purred pure class.
Those are Markram's signature shots. That he brought them out as early as he did in this innings was a sign he felt in good touch, even though he cautioned against trying the shot too early. "It is quite difficult to drive here on day one with the slow bounce," he said. "You have to earn the right to play a few drives or only drive when it's extremely full."
After one more nervy moment, when he almost under-edged Kemar Roach onto his stumps, Markram had earned it and he dominated an attack that offered width, half-volleys and big gaps in the field. He hit 10 of his 18 boundaries through the offside, seven in front of square and three behind, including the slap through point that brought him his sixth Test hundred.
He acknowledged it with a fist bump and a long hug with his partner Tony de Zorzi, while his team-mates, who have witnessed his struggles from close range, applauded. He also tried to contain tears. "I was fighting it a bit to be honest," he said. "It meant quite a lot to me. It's been a strange journey and I'm just grateful that it worked out. Scoring a hundred on your home ground in front of your friends and family also seems to be more special. And there was a lot of relief going through me."
And among cricket fans in South Africa too because Markram, who led the Under-19 team to victory in the 2014 age-group World Cup, is seen as a prodigal son. He has been touted as a future captain and, after taking on the role for the Sunrisers Eastern Cape and now the Sunrisers Hyderabad, is considered the frontrunner for South Africa's T20 side. But there is also some skepticism about how much this century should be lauded, given that West Indies are ranked No. 8 and haven't won an away series against a top eight side since beating New Zealand in 1995.
There will be those who say Markram could not have had an easier opportunity to score a century and if he hadn't, that would be the story - even though none of South Africa's other batters cashed in in the same way. Will that bother him? "I have pretty much binned social media. A couple of years ago, I decided to get off Twitter," he said. "After having a tough day, there's no point reading more negative things. If you have access to it, it prevents you from seeing it. Sometimes on social media, things can look worse than what they are. After a couple bad innings, you can feel like the worst player in the world because you are reading what everyone has to say. Some people have thick skins and they don't mind but for me, there was no real point reading it."
Ironically, it was on social media that Markram's message to his Sunrisers Eastern Cape team-mates got traction and showed a side of him that is more aggressive than anyone not bowling to him has experienced. "There is a lot of passion that comes out in change rooms," Markram said. "Ultimately, you are in the public eye more often than not and you have to try and be a role model and try and make your people proud of you as well."
Today, that's exactly what he did.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket