Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
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If Aiden Markram has not already had his last chance in Test cricket, the second match against New Zealand starting on Friday will be it. South Africa's captain Dean Elgar all but confirmed that unless Markram - who averages 9.70 from his last ten Test innings - contributes meaningfully, he faces the axe after a string of poor performances.
"I've had a lot of tough conversations with him, and [told him]: 'You need to score runs for us', Elgar said. "He understands the situation he is in at the moment. His position is a little bit vulnerable."
Markram has been Elgar's opening partner since September 2017, but missed the series against India and England in 2019-20. He'd had an impressive start to his Test career, scoring 1000 runs in his first ten games at an average of 55.55, including four hundreds - two of which in 2018 during South Africa's first home series win over Australia since readmission.
But things have spiralled from there. Markram struggled against spin in Sri Lanka and India in 2018 and 2019 respectively, then he lost his place in the side because he punched something in the dressing room and broke his wrist. The comeback didn't go so great either, with finger injury and poor form leaving him just barely holding on.
Still, South Africa back him, recognising his obvious talent; but it is time again for him to actually show it. "I'd like to think he is a lot cleverer than that as a player," Elgar said. "I don't think we need to harp on about too many things. He knows he needs to contribute for us and he is in a very important position batting in the top order.
"We need guys firing. You can't carry a few spots. It's okay to carry one guy if he is out of form. I've had a lot of good conversations with Aiden over the last few weeks. I need him to return the favour."
What seems to be a final concession was made for Markram in the first Test when he was moved into Keegan Petersen's (out with Covid-19) No. 3 spot, but South Africa's dismal batting meant just about all of the top five were playing as openers, which made little difference. If Markram plays in the second Test, he will likely remain at one drop, with South Africa giving Sarel Erwee the chance to fix an opening partnership that has averaged at South Africa's lowest for a minimum of 20 innings.
Markram and Elgar had two stands of over 190 in their first three innings together; yet, their overall average remains just 31.48 after 53 innings. Excluding their first series together against Bangladesh in 2017, they have batted together in 50 innings and averaged only 23.83, with just one century partnership. And the impact on the rest of the line-up has not gone unnoticed.
Too often, Rassie van der Dussen, Temba Bavuma and the lower middle order have had to dig South Africa out of holes and the end result has usually been a total under 250. Since the start of 2020, South Africa have scored more than 250 only four times in 13 innings batting first, the worst among all Test teams.
For comparison, New Zealand have managed scores over 250 batting first in 12 of their 15 innings since 2020, and have been the best with big totals. Elgar believes South Africa have what it takes to put runs on the board, and called it a "head-scratcher" why they don't do it more regularly.
"It's not about whether we can or can't. We haven't done it on a consistent basis, but we are very much capable," he added. "It's a bit of a head-scratcher for myself. We know the ability of the players we have. It's a little bit frustrating and disappointing that we haven't fulfilled our ability."
Elgar subscribes to the theory that most of the line-up is "one knock away from being in good form", and hopes that one will come in the next Test. "We've got to not replicate what we did in the first Test," he said. "We failed to arrive. Our competitive nature wasn't there."
There was also an over-riding consensus that South Africa were low on energy in the first Test, though no one could put their finger on why. It seemed like an unusual place for a team to be in, especially considering their recent success against India and improvements over the last eight months. Although Elgar couldn't explain it, he recognised that success can breed more success, simply by looking at the way New Zealand have approached the series.
"They've tasted a lot of success of late and they are extremely hungry for that success. They are making it count," he said. "You can see that they don't want to let go of that feeling of being one of the best sides in the world. With success, comes that hunger and desire and pride in your performance. They're not willing to give you an inch."