Aiden Markram’s heroics in the first Test at Kingsmead might have been in vain but he has announced himself to the world as a player of the highest class.
If there were any scars inflicted on Markram during that 5-1 drubbing at the hands of India, a one-sided limited-overs series for which he was thrust in at the deep end as captain, they were nowhere on show as the 23-year-old struck the third century of his short Test career.
This time the opposition was not Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, against whom he produced his first two Test hundreds. It came against an Australia bowling line-up of some quality, on a fourth day pitch of a Test match in which South Africa were set an improbable 417 to win. Not only would it have been the highest fourth innings chase at Kingsmead by some 77 runs, but it would also have needed the second highest chase in the history of Test matches to pull off.
In wrapping up the third day’s play I’d made a case for 300 being a tough target, but that 400-plus was always going to be much too far. So it transpired, as they closed at 293-9, needing to return on Monday morning for Australia to wrap things up.
Few would have expected South Africa to collapse to 39-4, but after AB de Villiers had inexplicably been run out for a duck, the general feeling was that the South Africans were going to fold like a pack of cards, bullied into a 1-0 series deficit with three matches to go.
After all, this is a bowling attack that rolled over England in their recent Ashes dust-up. Mitchell Starc, left-arm swing at pace, Josh Hazlewood, a poor man’s Vernon Philander albeit a few kilometres faster, Pat Cummins, the quickest bowler across both sides, and the improved spin of Nathan Lyon. At 39-4, the Australians were hollering and whooping, anticipating an early afternoon.
Yet a superb 143 from Markram, occupying the crease for 20 minutes short of six hours, left some patriots dreaming of the impossible. For the rest spread around the world, they would simply have marvelled at the arrival of a man born to star for his country. He might have also been born to lead, remembering that he was captain of the U19 side that won the World Cup for the Proteas in 2014.
Against India, Markram was handed the ODI captaincy and oversaw a side that was handed a lesson by the tourists. At the time no less an authority than Graeme Smith argued that he would not have been his choice as skipper – he himself been given the (Test) responsibility at a young age. Letting the 23-year-old develop and giving him the captaincy in two years time, might be a better call.
Now, back in Test whites and we have seen both the present and the future.
Aided by a revived Quinton de Kock in a sixth-wicket partnership that produced 147 runs and frustrated the Australians, the pair helped take this match into a final day, against all odds. Markram was also involved in an 87-run partnership with Theunis de Bruyn and the latter surely booked his place for the second Test at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth later in the week.
The other seven batsmen to lose their wickets – Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, De Villiers, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada – combined for 27 runs, which is a sobering statistic and a reminder too of how South Africa were bowled out for 162 in their first innings.
It was a pity that the Kingsmead cricket fraternity didn’t at least make an effort to watch Markram carve out such a fine counter-punching innings in an ultimately lost cause, although that’s no fault of his own. Rather, the blame sits squarely with the senior batsmen who crumbled in their first innings to hand Australia a 189-run lead that was always going to decide the destiny of this Test.
‘It’s a workday Thursday,’ the locals moaned when taken to task over the swathes of empty spaces on day one of a Test between two of cricket’s powerhouses. Well, Friday, Saturday and Sunday weren’t much better and perhaps it’s time to finally pull the plug on Test cricket in Durban.
Certainly, Markram deserved a bigger audience to watch his batting masterclass than the few thousand at the ground on Sunday. Then again, when the great Jacques Kallis announced that the 2013 Boxing Day Test against India would be his last, on four of the five days the average attendance was 5,500.
South Africa will now head to Port Elizabeth with some hope, while Australia no doubt will be scratching their heads as to how 39-4 could have turned into 283-5, before a flurry of four wickets fell for just seven runs.
Word is that Australia have enlisted the services of Sridharan Sriram, who played eight ODIs for India between 2000 and 2004, to help their batsmen cope with Maharaj, who took nine Australian wickets at Kingsmead.
This series is by no means over.
Photo: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images