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Time for South Africa's golden boy Aiden Markram to find his form in domestic cricket?

To get the best out of him for the many years that he is expected to play for South Africa, perhaps it's time for him to hit the reset button

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
You've got to feel a little sorry for Aiden Markram.
It's one thing to shoulder arms to a delivery that you don't know is going to jag back in sharply and take out your off stump. It's another to have started with a middle-stump guard, move across to off to counter the movement and then still be surprised by one that came back in sharply and took off stump out anyway.
It was the third time in five innings in this series that Markram failed to get into double figures, and the fifth time in his last seven. It has put further scrutiny on his contribution (or lack thereof) to an already struggling opening pair, who have performed only better than Ireland's and Afghanistan's in the last three-and-a-half years. Overall South Africa's top two average 22.19 in this period and Markram and Dean Elgar, as a partnership, a shave under that, at 20.78.
It's Elgar and Pieter Malan who have been the most successful South African pair since mid-2018, averaging 38.83 in their six innings together. Theirs is a small sample size, but it's not their fault. Malan was selected for only one series - against England in the 2019-20 summer, when Markram was ruled out with a broken hand - and has dropped completely off the radar since.
If that seems harsh, that's because it is. Malan faced more than fifty balls four times in his six innings and though he only crossed fifty once, he did the job of taking the shine off the new ball and attempting to ease the situation for the batters to follow. For comparison, in 52 innings as an opener, Markram has faced more than fifty balls only 19 times (just over a third of the time, compared to two-thirds for Malan) and though we're comparing vastly different numbers of innings, there's a point here. Elgar faces more than 50 balls 50% of the time, so Markram's lack of staying power is a concern. But what's the cause?
Markram is easy on the eye and technically sound. He moves across his stumps with confidence and India have managed to turn what could be a strength in his approach to a weakness by dismissing him early, either lbw or bowled. This is not an argument about his quality as a cricketer. It's about how to get the best out of him for the many years that he is expected to play for South Africa, and it probably starts with some understanding.
It cannot be easy carrying Markram's reputation. Since he captained South Africa to victory at the Under-19 World Cup, he has been dubbed a golden boy of sorts, labelled a future captain and even elevated to one four years ago, during an ODI series against India. That went badly as South Africa lost 1-5 and Markram failed to cross 35. He has since done relatively well in ODIs but has really come into his own in T20Is, where he bats lower in the order, at No. 4.
There will be an argument that the same should be done for him in Test cricket where, after averaging 55.55 in his first 10 games, he has averaged 26.78 in his next 19. The difficulty would be where to make room for him. Keegan Petersen has proved himself a worthy medium-to-long term No. 3 with back-to-back half-centuries, an organised presence at the crease with a delightful array of strokes. Even AB de Villiers agrees. And Petersen, despite the challenges of following a misfiring opening pair, wants to stay in his position at No. 3.
"I like batting three, I've batted there for most of my career," he said. "We've got two quality openers, they've just had a rough time. Aiden is going through a bit of a patch but he is a quality player. He will come through eventually. We all know that. I am happy to be playing and if I can make No. 3 mine I will be happy."
Rassie van der Dussen may appear to be the candidate that has to make way but he hung tough here and has the temperament to bat in difficult situations. Markram is unlikely to displace either of those two, so he may have to find form in domestic competitions while a more in-form player gets an opportunity.
South Africa don't even have to look that far to find one. Sarel Erwee has been travelling as their reserve opener since the series against Sri Lanka last season and was the leading run-scorer in the three-match unofficial series against India A. It would also give Markram the time to shed the baggage of expectation he seems to be carrying and learn to just play.
Of course, this entire story could be a moot point in a few days' time. Markram may come out in the second innings and play the innings of his career to give South Africa a series win. That will be the least complicated outcome for him and for South Africa, but they've both got to be prepared for whatever comes next if it doesn't happen.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent