Aiden Markram began the year outside the T20 side. He finishes it as arguably the Proteas’ most valuable batter in the format, writes RYAN VREDE.
Markram’s growth has been immense and having established himself in three formats, he must eye the Proteas captaincy in all three.
When Markram was called up to the Proteas T20I squad for the series against Pakistan in April, he hadn’t played in the format in international cricket since 2019.
His selection wasn’t roundly welcomed, but he repaid the selectors’ investment in him by scoring three consecutive half-centuries (51, 54 and 63) at a strike rate touching 183.
In hindsight, these performances spoke to the calibre of the T20 player that was emerging. Pakistan were unbeaten at the T20 World Cup before losing their semi-final to Australia, and have won 13 of 19 completed T20I matches in 2021.
In this calendar year to date, Markram has scored 570 runs across 16 innings at an average of 43.84 and a strike rate nearing 150. Those numbers are made more phenomenal because he was asked to bat at Nos 3 and 4, as opposed to at the top of the order.
The change has demanded that Markram grow his game to focus on improving hitting power, expanding his scoring repertoire, and developing greater tactical nous and match feel. He has excelled in every dimension and, encouragingly, has room for further improvements.
Towards the end of 2020 and in the early part of 2021, I was concerned that Markram’s talent would never be fully realised. I feared he’d be yet another impossibly talented batter that never quite had the tools to kick on.
He’d been dropped from the Test team and was an outlier in white-ball cricket. Many still saw him as a young player, thanks in part to the enduring memory of him as a 19-year-old captain of a prolific SA U19 side. But, by the end of last year, Markram had already turned 26, hardly old, but certainly not young in the context of establishing oneself in international cricket.
But it all clicked in domestic cricket, and his form there, combined with Pieter Malan’s slump (the incumbent Test opener) had him makeing an international return. Markram has now established himself as a three-format player, one whose selection is a certainty.
His bowling in white-ball cricket amplifies his value, while his excellent fielding, particularly in the deep, makes him a major player.
On Thursday, the ICC updated its T20I rankings. Markram’s magical year had him rise to No 3 in the batting rankings (his highest position yet). He trails the top-ranked Babar Azam by just 43 rating points, and has the second-placed Dawid Malan in his sights with just four points separating them. He has also risen to seventh in the all-rounder rankings.
It would be remiss not to celebrate the excellent year Rassie van der Dussen has had with the bat in T20 cricket. He is a fine player, who is getting better and better as he beds into international cricket. But Markram is the one I’m most excited about. His age (27 vs Van der Dussen’s 32) means he is a long-term fixture for the Proteas. On the evidence of his recent trajectory, Markram has become one of the foundational pillars of the batting challenge in every format.
The conversation around him has changed in a year. It started with many wondering if his talent would bloom into consistent performance. It has. The next question is not only how good can he be, but also whether the leadership roles he has filled throughout his junior career, will be a stepping stone to the Proteas captaincy?
Dean Elgar was appointed Test captain through to the end of the Test championship cycle in March 2023. At the time of his appointment, there were no strong candidates. Indeed, Markram had only just returned to Test cricket and hadn’t been impressive.
Things are different now, and I could see a scenario where Markram takes over from Elgar before March 2023. More significantly, if Temba Bavuma’s white-ball form doesn’t improve markedly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Markram take the reins there either.