Dubai - There is something about this land of Sheikhs, sand and skyscrapers that brings a glint to Aiden Markram’s eye.
It is here in the United Arab Emirates that a teenaged Markam lifted the ICC u-19 World Cup – still the only South African captain to achieve this feat at any level – back in 2014. And now almost a decade later, he has returned to sample his first taste of the Indian Premier League with the Punjab Kings followed by a highly successful ICC T20 World Cup with the Proteas Men’s team.
The intervening years away from the desert, particularly in white-ball cricket, have not always been kind to Markram as he navigated the world from being a youthful prodigy to world-class international cricketer.
The added responsibility of being burdened with the Proteas ODI leadership at just 23 for a high-profile home series against India in 2018 had an adverse effect on Markram, forcing him into the wilderness for a few years.
The talent and ability was never in question, but more the temperament and role-definition. It took his former Titans coach and now Proteas tactician Mark Boucher’s unwavering faith to finally unlock the vast potential on the international stage, with Markram now ranked in the top six of the leading T20 batters in the world after a string of sparkling innings over the past 12 months culminating here at the T20 World Cup.
“I still feel there is quite a long way for me to go in white-ball cricket. It is about growing and developing, but it has been a bit of relief for me the way the last eight-to-12 months have gone on a personal note,” Markam told IOL Sport.
“I have got a lot of backing from the selectors and the coach, but I wasn’t giving them much ammo to fight with. I am glad that it's gone alright since then and now it's about taking the game to the next level to take the team over the line.”
Since returning to the Proteas T20 side at the beginning of 2021 since his debut two years previously, Markram has scored 570 runs in 18 matches at an average of 43.84 with a strike-rate of 146.82. This includes a string of three consecutive half-centuries against Pakistan in his return series before a couple of solid contributions on both the preceding T20I tours to West Indies and Sri Lanka.
This run of form is even more impressive due the fact that Markram has been shifted all around the batting order from No 1 through to No 5. It is only recently that he has settled into the middle-order, where he’s added much-needed firepower.
“There were times when it was challenging (moving around). Going into games when I used to open – doing a role that I was familiar with – before that game, I would be stressing about getting things right, but I would know exactly how to go about it,” he said.
“But the past year it was the normal pre-match pressure, but now with the added uncertainty of how are you going to put in a performance because I wasn’t quite certain. I sat with that for a bit, but a lot of credit must go to the coaching group as a whole. I think role clarity has become clearer as well.
“The past two seasons, and possibly before that, there was a lot of focus on growth and experimenting with certain players. Coming into this season, there was a lot more focus and things have become a lot more consistent. That has helped me put in some really good performances here because naturally, like anything, if you do spend more time doing those roles it does become more familiar. Initially it was challenging, but exciting too because I could grow and develop my game.”
Markram will have an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past when India return to South Africa this summer for a bumper all-format tour consisting of three Test matches, three ODI’s and four T20I’s.
The 27-year-old is expected to be an integral part of the Proteas squads across all three formats, particularly in the Test arena too where he returns to open the batting with captain Dean Elgar.
He’s therefore been tasked with recharging the batteries having been rested for the upcoming three-match Netherlands ODI series. It is well-deserved after spending virtually the entire year in bio-secure environments and will allow him to re-set for arguably the biggest tour in world cricket at the moment.
“Naturally, we want to beat India. Their Test side and their white-ball teams are up there with the very best. It is going to be a massive challenge for us. It is something we are going to put a lot of emphasis on in terms of getting a positive result,” Markram said.
“Personally, I think it is about setting up a very good foundation for the team with Dean (Elgar). If you can get off to good scores upfront against the better team it does sort of calm things down so they can come in and do their thing. That is where I am at.
“The focus will definitely be about getting a positive result against, although obviously understanding that they are a powerhouse side.”