Back home, his long-time mentor and current Namibia coach Pierre de Bruyn, who’d seen Markram’s development from his childhood, was worried. He felt Markram’s act was the fallout of frustration that had started to build when he was surprisingly named South Africa captain for the home ODI series against India in 2018.
“I believe what we saw (in Pune) was a build-up, a ticking time bomb,” says 44-year-old de Bruyn, who had a 15-year first-class career. “It was a frustrating tour for him, and the whole captaincy thing that was placed on his shoulders before… there was too much going on off the field. He did not have a good run in India. It was a build-up of too many things on his mind.
“That is not Aiden, to go into a change room and hit the cupboard. When that incident happened, I was worried.”
Markram had, of course, been marked for great things ever since he became the only South Africa captain to win a World Cup – the Under-19 title in 2014, when he was also Player of the Tournament. By 2017, he was playing for the senior side, and in only his third ODI, at age 23, he was leading his country after Faf du Plessis got injured. Could there be some truth to the comparisons with Graeme Smith, after all? But what actually happened was disastrous.
South Africa were hammered 1-5 by India. By the fifth ODI in Port Elizabeth, where the series was lost, de Bruyn says Markram was so disoriented he could not remember how he had got out (caught at mid-off trying to chip over the infield).
“I sat down with Aiden after that tour and he said to me that when he walked off the field in Port Elizabeth, he could not recall his dismissal, he was so mentally confused.”
De Bruyn hits out at the “poor decision” that he feels set Markram’s white-ball career back by two or three years. “I will never forget that series. He was a young man trying to establish himself in international cricket. He was seen as this leader which he is, he is a natural leader. But that decision put him three steps back in his white-ball cricket. He was dropped after that (in 2019).
“The planning by the management then was pathetic. It wasn’t thought through. It was like a wish for the best decision… ‘can Aiden Markram just get us out of this hole? Is he really the guy? We don’t really know, but let’s take a chance.’”
Marked for greatness
Like de Bruyn, many also feel his leadership skills are best utilised without a formal title weighing him down. As it is, the 2014 win ramped up expectations even before his senior career began, and he’s been trying to deal with it ever since.
Test skipper Dean Elgar has spoken about Markram’s eloquence in the change room and how his words easily command the attention of even seniors. Also among his backers has been Ray Jennings, who had coached that champion junior side in 2014.
“I don’t think he would have punched that door if he was captain,” Jennings had said of the 2019 Pune incident.
Jennings has strongly been in favour of giving Markram the captaincy. “Fans should be hanging on a captain’s lips and he should almost be like a famous and likeable politician. Aiden Markram is sincere and soft and a very good speaker,” Jennings had said. “I believe people will find purpose in him. He is the sort of guy who performs better the more responsibility he has. He is a very caring person. He knows that the captain can’t exist in his own cocoon, that he has responsibilities outside of himself.”
But de Bruyn, who was the Markrams’ neighbour in Pretoria, knows how fragile Aiden can be if not handled properly. He once had to talk him out of his desire to quit the game.
“I remember when Aiden was 17 and his father and I used to play golf together, socialise together. One evening I was at the clubhouse with his father, we had had a couple of beers, we stood on the patio and Aiden said he was about to stop playing cricket because he was not selected for the regional age-group team. I was shocked.
“He was confused and disappointed. I told him you must come to the University of Pretoria where I was director of cricket. I told him ‘we will find you a directional course you can study but you are not going to give up cricket.’ That is where the journey had started.”
Playing with a free mind
Markram can be a “people pleaser”, de Bruyn had pointed out once, making him try to be too many things for too many people in an attempt to fulfill expectations.
“But when the captaincy was announced, and Elgar and (Temba) Bavuma were named, it was the biggest relief for that guy,” de Bruyn says.
“I am not saying he cannot be the Proteas captain, but he is better off scoring runs for South Africa… I just think about a kid who is devastating when he is free. We have seen that lately in white-ball cricket.”
The 27-year-old has started to kick on at least in T20 cricket; he had decent outings in the T20 World Cup for South Africa and in the Indian Premier League for Punjab Kings. He averages 39 and strikes at 147 in T20Is but is yet to get going in ODIs, with only three fifties after 31 innings.
Ahead of the IPL, de Bruyn remembers a conversation with Markram on his sister’s birthday. “He had come back from Sri Lanka. I mentioned I don’t see him sweep spinners anymore or have a lap against seamers. I said he has got to expand his options.
“And in the last 3-4 months, his white-ball game has gone to the next level. In the IPL, he hasn’t got to think, ‘do they want me to be captain?’ As a player, you want clarity.”
At the T20 World Cup, the Namibia and South Africa teams were staying in the same hotel, and de Bruyn and Markram were able to have a few chats. De Bruyn noticed that Markram was in a good, relaxed headspace. He is convinced South African cricket’s great hope since 2014 is finally primed to come good in limited-overs formats.
“Going forward, he is going to be one of the best white-ball top-order batters that we will see for a long time. Mark my words.”