Is Aiden Markram ready to repay South Africa's faith?

He's already experienced a career of two halves, over just 20 Tests. Now's his time to live up to his promise

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
South Africa see Aiden Markram as a candidate for leadership, but will he get back among the runs first?  •  AFP

South Africa see Aiden Markram as a candidate for leadership, but will he get back among the runs first?  •  AFP

This may not exactly be what Aiden Markram wants to hear on the eve of his Test comeback, but there's much more being scrutinised about him this summer than his batting. Markram is somewhere near the front of the captain-in-waiting queue and this could be the season in which he does enough to be anointed as the long-term leader, even if he prefers not to think about it for now.
"It's (captaincy) something I really enjoy doing but I haven't put much focus on that. I am in a position now where I am playing for my spot again," Markram said. "To be thinking about captaincy is not on my radar at all. I need to score a lot of runs. I haven't been good enough over the past 18 months."
Truth be told, Markram is not the only South Africa player who has not been good enough since mid-2018 when South Africa lost the first of two successive series to Sri Lanka. Almost all of the batting line-up has struggled with inconsistency in the aftermath so it would probably be easier to name the player to whom the opposite applies, Quinton de Kock, which is why he is the stand-in captain. It's his job to turn results around, which will take some doing, all things considered.
South Africa have won just one of their last five Test series (including the one in Sri Lanka) and four of their last 14 Tests. When the World Test Championship was mooted in the mid 2010s, South Africa would have fancied their chances of playing in a final. Now, they lie in eighth position with 24 points from seven matches and can only hope to finish somewhere near the middle of the points table and ensure they have a core group of players they can move forward with.
Markram has to be part of that group. He is too talented not to be. Glance only as far as what he can do at the levels below the International game. This season, Markram has reeled off three hundreds in a row in the Four-Day Franchise Series to sit second on the run-scorers' list. Last season, he scored 161 against India A in Mysore, against an attack that included both Umesh Yadav and Kuldeep Yadav. Markram's ability to score big hundreds is proven and like any player he won't do it every time he goes out to bat. The trouble is that he started out doing it a lot and then tapered off.
So far, Markram's international career can be divided neatly into two halves. In his first 10 Tests, he scored 1,000 runs, including four hundreds, at an average of 55.55. In his next 10, he's managed 424 runs at an average of 22.31.
The turning point was the tour of Sri Lanka, where Markram scored 40 runs in four innings, and was dismissed by Rangana Herath all four times. Like so many South Africa batsmen before him, and doubtless many more after him, Markram's technique against the turning ball was found wanting. At least he didn't appear as hesitant as some of his countrymen have been. Markram's undoing was that he was trying to be aggressive and ended up playing the ball too early, before taking the time to assess which way it was spinning, if at all.
As you might expect, the next time Markram faced a subcontinental side on their surfaces, he reversed that approach. In India, he adopted a slightly more defensive gameplan but R Ashwin found a way through. From there, Markam's mindset completely unraveled.
He bagged a pair in Pune, playing down the wrong line against the seamers, punched a wall in frustration, broke his hand, missed the final Test, came home, was the least successful top-order batsman in last year's Boxing Day Test against England, and broke a finger in the field, which sidelined him for the rest of the series. That means Markram has not played international cricket for exactly a year and it tells you a lot about how highly he is regarded if his is still one of the names that comes up in conversations about who South Africa's next Test captain will be.
Markram keeps getting mentioned partly because of the success he achieved as Under-19 captain when South Africa won the age-group World Cup in 2014 and partly because South Africa have shown an interest in his leadership before. He was named captain in for five matches of an six-game ODI series against India when Faf du Plessis was injured in 2018. Markram had only played two ODIs at that point. The plan backfired, South Africa lost four of the five matches, and Markram didn't manage a score over 32. He has subsequently fallen out of the white-ball squads. South Africa cannot risk the same thing happening at Test level. Perhaps that's why they opted not to give him the job this summer and chose instead to give him the space to find form before he has to take on more responsibility. It may even be that Markram wants it that way.
He spoke about using the lockdown to "slow things down" after many months in which cricket felt like it was on fast-forward. "I had time to touch base with things that worked in the past. It felt like everything was becoming a bit rushed with a lot of cricket and when you're out of form, it can be a snowball effect," he said. "I am moving well and things are starting to get back to where they were 18 months ago."
That's good news for South Africa because if Markram can start to replicate the form he had before that Sri Lanka tour, it will take pressure off the middle-order batsmen who have their own demons to bury. It will also allow the selection convener, Victor Mpitsang, an opportunity to see if Markram is ready to do more and with South Africa next Tests after de Kock's tenure ends in March around nine months away (December 2021), it will provide Markram with enough time to move from the heir apparent's role to the main job.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent