Aiden Markram's move to the South African team's middle order pushed him to improve his skills against spin, his strike rate and transform his white-ball game. In the last year, only six batters - Alex Hales Jos Buttler, KL Rahul, David Miller, Mitchell Marsh and Harry Brook have scored more runs than Markram while averaging above 35 and a strike rate over 135, putting Markram in elite big-hitting company, which has been his focus since being asked to bat lower down.
It was national head coach Mark Boucher's idea that moving Markram out of the top two would be a smart move, even though he was doing fairly well there. In his first six T20Is, all as an opener, Markram scored 197 runs at 32.83, including three successive fifties. But with South Africa's squad stacked with opening batters - think Quinton de Kock, Reeza Hendricks, Temba Bavuma and Janneman Malan - it was always going to become a bun fight for who would get into the final XI. Boucher found a way to include (almost) all of them.
"The middle order is where the coach felt he could get the best out of me," Markram told ESPNcricinfo from India, where he is preparing for South Africa's five-match T20I series against India.
But with his game more suited to playing pacers inside the powerplay, a bit of remodelling was needed.
"We worked to try and get my game to suit the middle overs. A lot of it was spin-based - getting used to walking in and facing quality spinners and to still score at a rate that was needed."
Like many South African batters, Markram has had his struggles against spin, albeit in the longest format. The two-Test series in Sri Lanka in 2018, where he returned scores of 0, 19, 7 and 14, was particularly tough. But a marked improvement in his footwork has since resulted in him score a Test century in Pakistan, and a 96 in an ODI in Sri Lanka. Makram also lit up IPL 2022, where he had the highest average of 47.62 among Sunrisers Hyderabad batters, and he was their third-highest run-scorer, with 381 runs in 14 outings.
In the last year, across domestic and international T20s, Markram averaged more against spin (44.66) than pace (39.69), and while his strike rate against pace was higher at 140.59, he still managed to score fairly quickly against spin, striking at 129.26. That's a result of the second part of his new strategy. "You also have to have to develop a power game, because you could potentially end up being at the back end of the innings," he said. "When you are batting upfront, you don't always pay attention to that power game."
Again, the last 12 months are a good case study for how Markram has adapted his game to suit the situation. Most of his runs have come in the middle overs, which is to be expected for someone batting at No. 4, but he has also contributed significantly at the end. In 13 overs at the death, Markram has a strike rate of 201.08. He doesn't pay too much attention to the number and only puts emphasis on being more attacking.
"It's based on the situation of the game," he said. "If you are chasing a low score, your strike rate will fluctuate. But nowadays T20 cricket is played in a very positive way, and you try to take the game on."
Someone else who has done that through the most recent edition of the IPL is David Miller, who played a key role in Gujarat Titans winning the title in their debut season. The combination of Markram and Miller may provide South Africa with one solution for their - at times soft -middle order, though Markram is happy to play a supporting role to Miller for now.
"It's very exciting to see David's form," Markram said. "He has proved that the more time he has got, the more match-winning knocks he can play. I assume that if we get off to a good start, he would potentially end up ahead of me in the line-up, just to give him that time to explode like he does. We will have to be adaptable as a batting unit but we all understand that. We all want the best for the side and we would like to see David at the crease more often than not."
"In terms of game plans and tactically, Tests are quite different but the one thing you could take across is time at the crease and confidence if you are scoring runs"
Whether Miller displaces Markram higher up in the order on occasion or not, Markram's form, and the option he provides as an offspinner, have all but guaranteed him a place in the current T20 squad. However, his role in other formats, specifically Test cricket, is precarious. In the same period as his T20 statistics have sparkled, Markram has the lowest Test batting average for a top-four batter - 16.38 across seven Tests, with only one fifty. He was shifted down the order to bat at No. 3 for the series against New Zealand, in the absence of Keegan Petersen, but then missed the Bangladesh series because of the IPL. ESPNcricinfo has it on good authority that if Markram was available for the Bangladesh matches, he would not have been picked anyway.
Whether he will be included in the squad to face England in August remains to be seen and he hopes that, at the least, he can take the belief he has in T20s into his red-ball game.
"In terms of game plans and tactically, Tests are quite different but the one thing you could take across is time at the crease and confidence if you are scoring runs," he said.
"Test cricket is completely different in terms of patience and technically you have to be very sound whereas in T20 cricket you can be a bit more out there and flamboyant."