'Can't control selections, all we can control is the weight of big runs' - Aiden Markram
Left out of the ODI side with the World Cup looming, the batsman reminded everyone of his worth with a remarkable hundred in the Momentum One-Day Cup
Friday night's Momentum One Day Cup game between Titans and Cape Cobras was supposed to be all about JP Duminy's return from injury and Hashim Amla's search for form. When Titans slipped to 31 for 5 on a sunny Newlands afternoon, it didn't seem like there would be enough runs for either man to even have the chance to get their teeth into a total.
What followed was a comeback of record-breaking proportions as Aiden Markram and Farhaan Behardien added 272 for the sixth wicket, both reaching hundreds to boost Titans to a match-winning 320 for 6. Duminy's first innings in four months ended with a second-ball duck, while Amla was trapped lbw by the sixth ball he faced, and it was the timely twin tons that lit up the match.
Markram and Behardien gritted their way through a new-ball attack making the most of their home conditions with pace and movement off the deck, accumulated through the middle, and then went bang at the death to set a new List A world record for the sixth wicket, beating the previous best of 267* between Grant Elliott and Luke Ronchi for New Zealand against Sri Lanka in Dunedin four years ago.
The size of their innings aside, there was also much else to celebrate in its substance. Together, Markram and Behardien hit 11 sixes and 23 fours. They accelerated steadily, from gritty resistance to fever-pitch power-hitting, raising their century stand as late as the 35th over and then plundering 185 from the last 15, with an incredible 93 of those coming in the last five.
"It was an interesting day," Markram told ESPNcricinfo. "An innings of two halves, especially in the first innings. They bowled really well up front, and made it tough for us to score as well as striking. It was really tough up front, but nice to reap the rewards at the back."
Markram walked out with his side 22 for 3, and watched from the other end as Dean Elgar immediately nicked off and Heinrich Klaasen spooned a drive to point. Suddenly, Titans were five down inside 13 overs, their run rate a laboured 2.38. "It happens so quickly," Markram said. "You look up at the scoreboard and you're four or five down within no time."
This summer, it's often seemed as if Markram is batting on a different pitch to his partners, so sure is his strokeplay, but this time he found it as tough as his partner did to see off the bounce and movement found by Cobras' pace attack. "There was a bit of life in the wicket," Markram said. "Extra bounce as well, which made it tough to score, especially off the front foot.
"We were in a tough position at the start, and I had a bit of time to set up the innings with Fudgie [Behardien]. We were the last of the two batters, with just allrounders to come, so we knew a lot of the responsibility was on our shoulders and we needed to bat for as long as we could."
Slowly but surely, Markram and Behardien titled the momentum back in their team's favour, with Behardien late-cutting George Linde's left-arm spin to the third-man boundary to raise the fifty stand in the 25th over. Markram had already hit his first six by then, and reached a 66-ball fifty five overs later. By the time the 150 came up in the 37th over, Markram was carving boundaries over cover, Behardien was into the 40s, and Titans were right back in the game. Markram paid credit to his batting partner, who also reached a fifth List A ton.
"He knew exactly what he needed to do,"Markram said of Behardien. "It made batting with him a lot easier. A lot of credit has to go to Fudgie. It was a great knock from him. Gluing the innings together."
Markram was first to his hundred, getting there in the 42nd over, having raced into the 90s with a pair of sixes off Tladi Bokako. He should have been caught by Aviwe Mgijima on the cover-point boundary straight afterwards, but Mgijima lost the ball in the setting sun, the ball slipping through his hands to hit him on the cheek. Markram made the second chance count, hitting 64 runs off the next 23 balls he faced.
"We had a bit of catching up to do," Markram said. "It was almost a case of reminding me, the job's not done. You look up at the scoreboard and the team's still not in the best position. But there was a bit of luck involved.
"Ja, look, it was a fortunate day. A bit of luck out there to be honest. But it was nice, it was satisfying. We've been putting in a lot of hard work behind the scenes."
Markram hit two sixes and two fours to take 20 from Dane Paterson's ninth over, before Behardien outdid him with three sixes and a four as 25 flowed from his tenth, the Cobras seamer finishing with figures of 0 for 90. Markram was finally out in the 50th over for 169. It was his fifth List A ton, and his first not as opener.
"It was something new," Markram said of his innings at No. 5. "I've never batted at five before. But I was in there early, so it was almost an approach of batting up the order, or batting at no. 3."
Not content with rescuing Titans and setting up a mountain of a chase for Cobras, Markram then came on to bowl five overs of offspin, nipping out David Bedingham and George Linde to hasten Cobras' demise as they slipped to an 83-run defeat with almost 10 overs of their innings unused.
But, at a time when there is an added context to any white-ball achievement with the World Cup barely more than three months away, it's Markram's runs that could really count.
At the moment, he is finding it tough to force his way into an already crowded Proteas top six - as are Amla and Duminy. Neither are in the squad for the first ODI against Sri Lanka on Sunday. Nor are Markram and Behardien, and Behardien is not even on a national contract, so there is ground to be made up yet.
There were only perhaps a thousand people at the ground, and though the eyes Markram would have most wanted on his innings were those of the selectors, he deflected any suggestion that his hundred was a statement of intent.
"As players, we can't control selections. All we can control is the weight of big runs, and putting runs on the board. I'm trying to invest all my time and energy into the Titans team, and whatever happens from there, we just take it in our stride day by day."
Liam Brickhill is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent