It was by choice, not by design, that Aiden Markram became an opening batsman after he learned the only vacancy for him was at the top.
No, this did not happen over the last season when Stephen Cook struggled to nail his Test spot but several summers before, when the national Under-19 side had a middle-order that could not accommodate Markram. At the time he was plying his trade at Pretoria Boys' High School and excelling, but so were many of his ilk. Jason Smith (now contracted to Cobras) and Clyde Fortuin (Warriors) were among those who occupied the position Markram was eyeing so Ray Jennings, who was then in charge of the U-19s, suggested Markram move up the order if he wanted to make it.
It worked a charm. Not only was Markram selected in the squad, but he captained it and finished as South Africa's highest run-scorer in a victorious World Cup campaign. He returned home to massive praise but unlike some of his team-mates, did not immediately have the opportunity to put pen to paper in a professional deal. Instead, Kagiso Rabada and Andile Phehlukwayo were snapped up by Lions and Dolphins respectively, later Smith and Fortuin were signed but Markram could not catch a break. He went on to the University of Pretoria and a year-and-a-half later was offered a semi-professional deal at Northerns. Although there were twinges of envy, Markram was mostly happy to let the journey unfold.
"When you are young and you watch other players excel, maybe it crosses your mind [why you are not getting contracted] but you can't wonder why they are there and you are not. Those guys are real x-factor players - KG and Andile - and I just had to know my time would come," Markram told ESPNcricinfo." "I took the route the majority of players take, through the ranks, and it's not a bad thing. I really got to know myself and my game in that time."
At the start of last season, Markram was contracted to Titans. His franchise deal coincided with the appointment of a new coach in Mark Boucher, who had a plan for Markram's development which involved letting the young man do what he does best: open the batting across formats. "Mark put a lot of responsibility on me to set up innings well and then once I had done that, not to just think I had done my job as a youngster and so I could get out but to take things deep," Markram said, admitting he took the task "very seriously."
The numbers tell some of the story of the success in entrusting Markram with such a key role. In the first-class competition, Markram finished as the 10th highest run-scorer with 565 runs from seven matches at 51.36, including two fifties and two hundreds. In the one-day cup, he was the third highest run-scorer with 508 runs from nine matches at 56.44, including two hundreds. One of them - his 183 against Lions - is now the record for the highest individual score in the South African 50-over competition.
Markram credits his opening partner, Henry Davids - who topped the run charts - for aiding his performances. "Henry is a free-flowing player and he really took the pressure off so my plan was to take it as deep as I could alongside him and then if he got out, to try and stay there," he said.
There is a lot to play for. I think I still have to do a whole lot more to put myself in contention, even if not now than in future
Aiden Markram on his international ambitions
And that is the other half of the story. Titans are an outfit brimful with experience and talent, so for a young player there's plenty to be inspired by and learn from. Markram had Test opener Dean Elgar or domestic stalwart Heino Kuhn to partner him in the longer format and Davids in the shorter one. He had Albie Morkel, Farhaan Behardien and occasionally even AB de Villiers in the same changing room. "Those guys are always one step ahead of the game and that helps you to be one step ahead as well," he said.
Now, only a season into his career, Markram has taken several steps forward. He is part of the South African A squad who are shadowing their seniors on a trip to the UK over the next month. The one-day side will play two warm-up matches and three one-day games against the England Lions while the four-day side, which Markram will captain, have two county matches and a four-day game against the Lions. That is where real opportunity lies.
From a limited-overs' perspective, South Africa are not really searching for anything. Their Champions Trophy squad is sealed and the next World Cup is two years away. Not even they plan that far in advance. But at Test level, there is at least one place up for grabs: the opening spot. Markram is the person is the best position to fill it.
Cook was dropped for the last Test in New Zealand after a string of low scores - a second string on a second away tour - and selection convener Linda Zondi has gone on record saying Cook's replacement, Theunis de Bruyn, will not open the batting in future. Early indications are that Cook will at least start the Test series against England - he has been nationally contracted and he has been playing on the county circuit in the lead up - but Cook's form will decide whether he finishes it. And if he doesn't, that opens a door for Markram.
"I would really like to be part of the Test squad - no player will say they'd not want to be involved - and I guess you never really know how close you are," Markram said. "There is a lot to play for. I think I still have to do a whole lot more to put myself in contention, even if not now than in future."
That's why the next month is an audition for Markram, from both a batting and captaincy point of view. If he can show an ability to accumulate runs in tough conditions against quality bowlers - he identified Steven Finn who was left out of England's Champions Trophy squad but included in the Lions group as one of them - it will do wonders for his reputation. "We're expecting the ball to move around but we can't have the mindset that because it's going to do that, we must go into our shells. We have so many good players and good stroke-makers that we can't let conditions take us out of our game."
But even if he doesn't get the nod to stay on with the Test squad this time, he might look to the new home season, when South Africa will play 10 home Tests, and the local scene, where there may even be the possibility of taking more responsibility at Titans. Markram is being spoken of as a future leader and has discussed some options with Boucher. "We had a brief, informal chat about it and he wanted to know my thoughts on captaining. I really believe you can be a leader without the armband as well," he said.
Markram intends to show that in the UK, where among the men he will lead is his Titans team-mate Kuhn, the current replacement batsman in the Test squad de Bruyn and Test caps Dane Piedt and Duanne Olivier. He intends to use all of them in some capacity. "It's going to be important to keep the senior players close so they can also lead. As a captain, you don't always have to be the guy who speaks, because the guys can get tired of hearing the same voice. You can get the senior guys to do some of the talking for you."
It's by design that Aiden Markram is a captain and with several senior South African players speaking about the 2019 World Cup as a swansong, Markram may provide the selectors with a choice they simply can't refuse.