Certain players might still be carrying baggage of last tour’s 0-3 loss: Aiden Markram

Just before South Africa’s trip to Sri Lanka last year, a buoyant Aiden Markram posted on Twitter: “Looking forward to the subcontinent. Looking forward to playing (Rangana) Herath. Big test.”

Life then was flowing smoothly for Markram, fresh from his series-clinching 152 against Australia in Johannesburg, a series in which he top-scored with 552 runs, defanging Pat Cummins and Co, and in the process becoming the second-fastest from his country to complete 1,000 Test runs.

But all the dreams of conquering Herarth turned nightmarish once the masterly left-spinner began dismissing him repeatedly for cheap scores. Four innings and 97 balls eked out only 40 runs, and he perished to Herath three times. In different patterns — caught at first slip, stumped and lbw.

In Galle, Herath deceived him with flight and dip in the first innings, turn in the second. In Colombo, the arm-ball nailed him in the first and Dilruwan Perera’s big-spinning off-break jettisoned him in the next. In the space of three months and four innings, the perceptions broke. From being paraded as the brightest hope of South Africa’s batting, Markram was typecast as the archetypal overseas batsman who freezes at the first sighting of quality spin bowling. He carried his struggles to the ODIs and suddenly the once-certain World Cup spot seemed to be drifting away.

His morale was in shambles, primarily because of overt self-expectation, like most young sportsmen on their maiden overseas trip. But Markram quickly atoned with dogged half-centuries against touring Pakistan — the 90 in Johannesburg, he considers the best he ever had in a session in Tests. He did get picked for the World Cup, partly because of his resurgence and partly because of his country’s deficient batting stocks. But spin travails rankled him, so much so that soon after reaching home he requested the coach of his childhood club TUKS, Kruger van Wyk, to let him practice on the most worn-out strip on the ground.

So whenever he was not playing domestic or international cricket, Markram was at his old club, honing his technique against spin. Whenever he got an opportunity, he would pick the brains of spinners in his team, be it those of Proteas teammate Imran Tahir, Titans teammate Tabraiz Shamsi or Mason Crane during his Hampshire stint.

Then just before South Africa A team’s tour to India, he and Temba Bavuma attended a week-long camp in Bangalore with former Test player Raghuram Bhatt, a classical left-arm spinner.

The efforts seem to have paid off, or at least paying off, as he has warmed up to the Test series against India with a brace of hundreds, a strokeful 161 against India A and a breezy 100 (retired out) against Board President’s XI in Vizianagaram. Though the Board President’s spinners were more modest than menacing, India A had among them Kuldeep Yadav, Shahbaz Nadeem and Jalaj Saxena.

So much so that Markram’s assurance in playing the spinners had South Africa’s batting coach Amol Muzumdar excited. “He’s free of all the baggage of that tour to Sri Lanka. He’s fresh and keen to play spin bowling. And he has looked quite assured playing spinners. For any player from outside the subcontinent, they need some time to get used to the conditions here and the few weeks have really equipped him. He has used the time well scoring those hundreds. He’s an unrestrained fellow, and has looked quite solid at the crease,” he observed.

The pair first met in Mumbai just months before South Africa’s High Performance team toured the country, and the former Mumbai batsman worked with them for a week. From that time, Muzumdar knew the youngster would scale heights.

“We worked extensively on technique and stuff like that. At that time, he hadn’t made his debut but was quite organised and compact. In two years’ time, he has become all the better in every sense. His game has developed by leaps and bounds,” he reflects.

The quest for perfection has been a hallmark of Markram’s game. Tuks manager Conrad Blanche says she hasn’t seen any teenager work so hard. “Morning, afternoon, evening, you could spot him somewhere in the ground. He had lots of friends around whom he would make them bowl at him when the squad bowlers weren’t available. Sometimes, he would just focus on specific aspects that will keep working for hours on that.”

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Like the conventional sweep shot, of late, to neuter the subcontinental spinners. Though not a natural sweeper — he’s more of a cutter and driver —Markram has been rigorously practising the stroke. From Graham Gooch and Matthew Hayden to Damien Martyn and Alastair Cook, several overseas batsman have deployed the stroke to great effect. Against Kuldeep and Co in Vizianagaram, he was seen playing the stroke confidently. But Muzumdar has a piece of advice: “Don’t consider this as the only shot against the spinners, but just one of the several shots.”

Several overseas players have floundered attempting one sweep too many, especially against Ravindra Jadeja, who adroitly modulates his pace and length. Also, while sweeping, some of them don’t account for the turn, rather just play the line. Hence, the counsel. But Markram would know the perils of relying on just one strategy.

In the second innings in Galle, he was repeatedly stepping out to the spinners. He smothered the spin on several instances, but Herath, shrewd as he is, flummoxed him with his dip and turn. So embattled was Markram that in the next Test, he hardly ventured and was hell-bent on playing from the back-foot, with the turn. The result was worse: He was lbw-ed both times.

Rather than playing every delivery in isolation, he was reacting to the way he was getting out. His own heightened self-expectation and inability to meet those standards were gnawing at him.

So in essence, it was more of a temperamental than a technical issue, flaws instigated by a troubled mind. Markram was quick to address it, and against India A, he played with a freer mind, according to Muzumdar.

AS a result. the footwork was more precise. A tall man, he had the tendency to plant the front foot and reach for the ball. These days, he doesn’t grope at those balls, which has made him less susceptible to the variance of flight and dip. Also, he has worked on his bat-swing, which is more straighter now. It always was, but for the doubt-ridden times in Sri Lanka. Regaining that bat-flow was instrumental to his resurgence, which continued in the A series. And the effort now is to keep the bat-flow as it is.

So into yet another series, he goes with fine form. This time, though, he has been subdued on Twitter, but inwardly there must be no shortage of motivation as he strives to tick the box that went unchecked on his previous trip to the subcontinent.