It’s been a rough initiation to leadership in international cricket for Aiden Markram. He’s captained South Africa in five One-Day Internationals, presiding over a 5-1 series loss at home. It was all very different when he was making his debut in international cricket, less than five months ago. There was 97 on debut, followed by two centuries. But the fresh-faced debutant, who had come to international cricket after being an Under-19 World Cup-winning captain, resembled almost a grizzled veteran at the end of the ODI series against India. International cricket can make you grow up, or grey up, fast.
He’s not playing the three-match Twenty20 International series, so Markram will have plenty of time to reflect on the learnings from his time in charge of the national team against as tough an opponent as possible. Through the defeats, Markram’s calm and composure stood out. Only 23 years old, he would have been forgiven a meltdown or two. But he maintained perspective.
It didn’t go unnoticed, even by the opposition.
“It’s not easy. I understand it’s not easy, especially when the results are not going your way,” said Virat Kohli, his opposite number and the man most responsible for making Markram’s captaincy debut a nightmare, with a record-breaking 558 runs. “I’ve been very impressed with him as batsman, and as a captain as well, he’s really composed from what I saw in the field. It’s not easy when things are not going your way, but he’s someone who doesn’t seem to lose his cool, which I think is a very good thing, a very positive sign.
“He’s obviously captained his province, he’s captained the junior level as well. I would really suggest people (in South Africa) show patience with him because he’s potentially your next leader and he’s a top-class batsman as well. It’s a joy to watch him play and he’s definitely got the talent to dominate as a batsman and he’s got the right mindset to dominate as a leader as well. He just needs some time. I can totally empathise with him because I’ve been in that position. All I can say is he’s on the right track.”
Markram made only 127 runs in the six ODIs against India. He got starts but couldn’t kick on, with scores between 22 and 32 in the last four games. It led Ottis Gibson, the coach, to suggest that captaincy was perhaps affecting Markram’s natural game. “I don’t know if the whole responsibility around captaining has been too much for him, it’s something I will have to review myself,” Gibson had said after the fifth ODI. “But it seems he is trying to bat in a way that is not the Aiden Markram I saw in September.”
The coach, however, emphasised that the selectors had chosen the right man once Faf du Plessis was injured after the first ODI. “This was a decision for the future, not a decision for now. Aiden has shown all the hallmarks of someone who is going to be a good leader.”
Markram said that not only did Gibson have the full authority to say what he did about his batting, but that the coach was also right in his way. However, Markram explained the pressures of captaincy and gave yet another glimpse into why the South African selectors plumped for a rookie as captain, and why Kohli saw him as a future leader for South Africa.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” said Markram. “As an individual, I set high standards for myself, and not having done well this series, there was that form of pressure as well. So there are various forms of pressure – captaincy is just one of them. But like I mentioned, it is pressure I enjoy and I’d like to enjoy it more in the future.
“To be brutally honest with you, I’m happy it’s happened this way, not just for me but for us as a squad,” he added. “It really gives us some points to learn on and it’s going to make victories in the future much, much sweeter. It’s going to make us work a lot harder. There’s a reason it’s worked out the way it has. We’re learning and we’re growing. It’s going to get to a stage where we really know our games and who needs to do what for the side. It’s going to be an exciting 18 months coming up. The guys will be very hungry.”
One of the early captaincy lessons Markram learned was that he could not allow the responsibility to affect his game as a batsman. And while that chimed with what Gibson had observed, Markram’s take on it was more about clearing his mind than restructuring his batting.
“As a player, you still need to look after your performance,” he said. “As a captain, you can only control so much. At the end of the day, I’m still a batsman and I need to score runs. When I get into the middle, I need to be in that comfort zone and not let thoughts of captaincy get into my mind at that time.”
Markram may, or may not, be in the starting XI the next time South Africa play an ODI with a full complement to pick from. But if he can keep his head clear while batting, and buzzing otherwise, he could yet end up justifying the early faith reposed in him many times over.