LAST YEAR, during South Africa A’s tour to India, Adrien Markram spent 10 days at the MIG ground at Bandra in Mumbai, learning the art of defending and scoring against the turning ball on brownish grassless tracks. Mumbai’s former skipper Amol Muzumdar, who scored most of his 11,000 first-class runs on slow and low tracks in India, would give him the “crease confidence” when facing quality spinners.
Markram would have never thought that those 10 days in Mumbai would come in handy while batting at home in Centurion, a venue famous for bounce and favourite among the pace bowlers fraternity. He couldn’t be blamed since who would have thought that South Africa would roll out a pace-unfriendly Day 1 track for the second Test. Watching 90 overs of action, it seemed Markram wasn’t the only Pretorian who had taken a leaf out of the Indian coaching guide. Even the local curators seemed like they had a study tour to the Wankhede.
Meanwhile, the Indians couldn’t believe this stroke of luck. Their delight could be compared to the unrestrained glee of a famished vegetarian who spots a Udupi Cafe in Pretoria, a city that loves its steak. In the land known for pitches were the ball flies, it was a very sub-continent type of day. Team winning toss, opting to bat, seamers mostly ineffective, spinners getting bouncy turn and a run rate of less than 3. South Africa were 269/6, with R Ashwin, looking like the Ashwin of old, taking 3/90. Saturday was lucky for India with two run-outs, and AB de Villiers played on off a harmless Ishant Sharma delivery, which helped them nose ahead.
By stumps, Kohli was running around, appealing frantically in discussion with his spinner. Centurion looked so much like home. If not Nagpur or Mohali, this felt like Kotla or Eden. Had it not been for South Africa’s 23-year-old opener’s 94 and old-hand Hashim Amla’s 82, South Africa would have been reminded of that disastrous 2015 tour to India where they crumbled on slow tracks. Memories of Mohali and Nagpur would have swept the home dressing room. While the world has come to expect Amla’s heroics when chips are down; Markram has enjoyed the same confidence in his skills in South Africa for some time now. Since his early days, he has been the boy Pretoria would find time to come and watch. He would be the young batsman, who would stand out in junior games.
Rushdi Jappie a one-time Titan, from the Centurion franchise, happens to be one of them. He talks about the one-thing that all batting prodigies possess, that single skill that makes coaches shake their head. “He had a lot of time while playing his shots,” he says. Jappie nails Markram’s batting with one line that is sure to make everyone sit up and notice him. “I think he has a bit of Faf du Plessis and a bit of AB de Villiers in his batting,” he says. A clean-hitter of the ball, with a very strong defence, text book technique and the temperament to avert a crisis like today.
It’s a heady mix that can make any nation invest heavily in a player. And the day he led South Africa to the u-19 World Cup title in 2014, it was too tempting for this nation to see Markram not just as the Next Big Batting Star but ‘The Redeemer’ himself. All of South Africa’s biggest cricketing heroes have brought home depression, Markram was the first to bring a smile and shining silverware. However, it was Markram’s team mate, the equally talented Kagiso Rabada, who made it to the Proteas squad first and eventually become a World No.1 and globally-recognised and feared pacer.
Markram had to wait. Like Virat Kohli post his 2009 u-19 World Cup triumph, the talented opener was the country’s big hope but getting into the star-studded batting line-up took time. The Kohli-comparison doesn’t end there. “He is a modern day batsman, who is equally comfortable playing in all formats. In the domestic one-day final for Titans, he scored 188. He has all the strokes,” says Jappie.
Muzumdar’s experience with Markram highlights the South African batsman’s drive to improve. It isn’t out of place to mention here how Kohli too went to MIG, with Sachin Tendulkar by his side, to sort his problems against swing post the England tour.
“When he was in Mumbai, they were saying he is going to play for South Africa soon. He came with that reputation. Although, he was close to playing Test cricket, his mind was open to all ideas. He was ready to soak in and accept whatever was said during the camp,” says Muzumdar who after his one-time student’s knock would tweet – “Well played Aiden Markram. Strong defence n positive intent.”
Defence was something the two worked extensively on during the 10-day MIG camp. “I was really happy with the way he was defending today. He was defending well from the crease. A strong defence can give an indication to the bowler that you will have to bowl a special ball to me. We worked on even defending a half-volley. One session we only worked on defence in the nets.”
At Centurion, he was back to those MIG mornings. With nothing in the wicket for pacers, Markram punished Mohammad Shami with two successive boundaries. One punch through point and another flick off legs. Ishant Sharma and Hardik Pandya too would run-in but Markram would show same disdain for them. The prodigy was at home, he was in his elements. His parents were on the grass banks, he very easily could’ve gotten carried away.