Pakistan series a chance for Markram to secure top-order spot

News Analysis

“I’d see myself anywhere in the top four, probably more comfortable up-top for the time being,” he says

A long, long time ago, in the age BC (Before Coronavirus), South Africa played an ODI series. And won. Really.

In March 2020, they swept Australia 3-0 at home, prompting suggestion of a tide being turned, that came to nothing. Just consult the results and boardroom shenanigans of the last few months as proof.

But a long, long time before that, in the age of, let’s call it BB (before Mark Boucher took over as national men’s coach), Aiden Markram played an ODI. South Africa won that one too but by then they had lost so many others that they registered their worst performance at a World Cup and returned home disgraced.

Markram scored 34 in that match but hasn’t played a white-ball international since, losing ground through injury and the other players’ form. Understandably now that we are entering the age NN (New Normal), in preparation for three white-ball World Cups in as many years, he said being part of a limited-overs group felt “a bit foreign” because he wasn’t banking on being part of South Africa’s squad.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all. I understand my white-ball game for the Proteas hasn’t been where I would have liked it to be. In general you never expect selection but more so in this case for myself,” Markram said.

Though Markram’s domestic record is outstanding – he averages 63.04 in 22 matches for the Titans and has scored seven centuries – he has not been able to translate that to international level. In 26 ODIs, his average is 27.95 and he has not brought up one three-figures score. On one hand, that may be because he was burdened with the stand-in captaincy two matches into his ODI career in a series against India (which South Africa went on to lose 1-5); on the other, he has been shifted around the top four with little indication of if or where he may settle permanently.

The series against Pakistan is an opportunity to change the latter, even though South Africa have a bottleneck of top-order players in the squad. Incumbent openers Quinton de Kock and Janneman Malan are likely to start the series, but when de Kock leaves for the IPL after the second match, Markram may get a chance to open, which he will gladly take.

“The few discussions I’ve had with the coach and Temba (Bavuma) are to try to be quite versatile. I’d see myself anywhere in the top four, probably more comfortable up-top for the time being,” Markram said. “I’d still like to get to know numbers three and four a little bit more but certainly something I am open to doing. As a player, you’d be happy to take any spot that’s available in the team.”

Markram acknowledged that there is a pecking order which includes captain Bavuma, who has also laid claim to a position in the top four, and allrounder Jon-Jon Smuts. “I still need to do a lot,” Markram said. “It’s just been about getting back to the game plans I used when things were going well for me, albeit at franchise cricket. It’s just about addressing plans from a mental side of things. I don’t think technically too much changes.”

But there is much else about South Africa’s set-up that has changed. Since Markram last played ODIs, South Africa have moved from a Faf du Plessis captaincy through a de Kock one and now, to Bavuma. In that, Markram was overlooked for a leadership role he is thought to be destined for, not least because he took South Africa’s Under-19 team to World Cup glory in 2014.

Markram may still get the job in future but until the 2023 World Cup, he is happy to be a foot soldier in Bavuma’s army and is impressed by what the new captain has offered so far. “He has been brilliant this week in guiding the brand of cricket he would like the Proteas to play,” Markram said.

To date, South Africa’s new style of play has not been revealed but Markram indicated it will be built on meticulous plans. “Temba will be doing a lot of planning before a game so that when we are in the game he has got options to fall back on. Quinny (de Kock) is quite a free-spirited person and quite a free-spirited captain and was able to develop plans as they go. I’m not saying Temba can’t do that but his preparation might be different to Quinny,” Markram said. “We’ve got a couple of years to build on something and hopefully when 2023 comes, each player knows his role under the brand of cricket Temba wants.”

And so South Africa enter the age of operation 2023, in a bid to become more of the team they were when they beat Australia BC and to finally get their hands on a WC. That’s World Cup, by the way.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent