TELFORD VICE in Cape Town
EVERYBODY knows his name, and so they should. At 19 he hoisted the only World Cup trophy yet won by a South African team. At 21 he scored his maiden first-class century and, now 22, he has three more hundreds in his CV and has reeled off innings of 183 and 161 in List A games in the past three weeks.
“Sir,” is how he addresses reporters of a certain vintage, a habit that’s sure to be drummed out of him when he is in the national squad.
When. Not if. That could happen in the next few weeks if the clamour for him to open the batting for South Africa in England this winter is answered.
His name is Aiden Markram, and he knows its up in lights wherever and whenever South Africans talk cricket.
“You do see the articles that are out there,” Markram said. “But I haven’t really taken it in.”
Neither, he said, had he spent much thought on seeing his name in a test squad.
“If it had to happen it would be a complete bonus,” he said.
Markram’s selection would be an alarm for the struggling Stephen Cook or even Theunis de Bruyn, who batted out of position to replace Cook in the third test against New Zealand in Hamilton last month.
“You never wish anything bad to happen to anyone in the Proteas side,” Markram said. “Stephen Cook and Theunis are brilliant players. You wish the best for them before you even think about yourself.”
Cook, a dozen years Markram’s senior and 162 caps further into his first-class career but cut from the same deferent cloth, also knows the kid’s name.
“He’s done incredibly well and I think he will open the batting and score many a test hundred,” Cook said.
So, Markram has what it takes to open the batting in test cricket?
“It’s so difficult to say,” Cook said. “If I think of myself as a 22-year-old, if you had said to me then, ‘Stephen, are you ready for test cricket?’, I’d probably have said yes.
“I’d also scored five or six first-class hundreds and that year I’d won One-Day Cricketer of the Year. But would I really have been ready knowing what I know now? No.
“But every guy’s different. Maybe he would take to test cricket like Graeme Smith did; maybe he wouldn’t.”
Cook’s uncertainty over Markram is understandable, but there’s plenty more where that comes from in more objective senses.
Is it time for South Africa to invest in a youngster at the top of the order or is experience more valuable?
How much of the problems most of the rest of South Africa’s batting order are experiencing can be ascribed to a shaky opening stand?
Are openers’ sacrosanct techniques being eroded by playing too much cricket in the lesser formats or by trying to imitate some of the more innovative strokes they see others pulling off in their pyjamas.
“Not too many test openers open in white-ball cricket anymore,” Herschelle Gibbs said.
“That means there are not too many complete batsmen out there anymore. The job has become a lot more specialised.”
Having opened the batting in 116 of his 154 test innings, Gibbs knows of whence he speaks.
It took him eight innings at the top of the order to reach 50, and in his last 20 trips to the test crease as an opener he suffered five ducks and four other scores of fewer than 10. And that, mind, from the sixth highest run-scorer in South Africa’s test history.
Failure strikes openers more readily than it does those who saunter out with a welt of runs on the board to face bowlers no longer fresh and using an ageing ball.
“I’d still take opening any day of the year, compared to batting in the middle order,” Gibbs said. “I was really nervous waiting to go in, so I’d rather just get out there and face the music.”
But that music curdles to discordance when the crack of ball on the middle of bat falls is replaced by the sniggering of edges, the smug thump of solidly struck pads, and stumps that cackle with clattering.
“You can take it quite personally,” Gibbs said. “You and your partner are trying to set the foundation and if you keep failing it’s not a nice place to be.
“You’re in and, virtually immediately, you’re out again and you feel like you’re letting the team down more than you’re letting yourself down.
“It plays on your mind a lot more than if you’re batting down the order.”
Cook knows that feeling only too well. Markram doesn’t. Yet.
This being cricket and him being an opener, he will.