South Africa must act quickly to arrest opener's slide 

17Oct 2019
By Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
South Africa must act quickly to arrest opener's slide 

YOU have already read this story about Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma. If you read between the lines, you also read this about Faf du Plessis.

You know by now that the main reason South Africa have been unable to compete in the ongoing Test series in India is because their batting has not been up to standard. But bear with us, because you're now going to read about another member of the line-up, from whom more was expected and little delivered: opening batsman Aiden Markram.

First, though, let's not be too harsh on the young man. Markram is only 19 Tests into a career that many believe is destined for great things, and he has an average of 40.05, no mean feat for an opener in South Africa, operating in the era of revenge pitches. At home, he has been exceptional, with four centuries in his first season, two of them against Australia, at an average of 48.81. So far, so impressive.

Now let's turn to Markram's away form - and remember that the only away Tests he has played so far have been on the subcontinent - and we'll find numbers that are just as eye-catching but in the opposite way.

Markram has scored just 84 runs from eight innings in the subcontinent, at an average of 10.50. That includes three ducks, two scores under 10 and a highest of 39. In six of those eight innings, he has been dismissed by spinners; in four by Rangana Herath.

While it may initially appear counter-intuitive that Markram has done much worse when he is away from the treacherous home surfaces, there's consistency in his struggles abroad. It's not speed, swing and the fear of having of his head taken off that Markram cannot contend with, it is the lack of pace and the expectation of turn.

In the first Test in Sri Lanka, Markram appeared in a hurry to get away, often coming forward and once even charging Herath, before being beaten for length. By the second, he had changed his focus to look for balls that turned and was twice beaten by the one that went straight. More recently, in Visakhapatnam, Markram went trying to press forward, and in Pune the extent to which his mind is now frazzled was evident: he was dismissed by seamers, to deliveries he would normally know exactly what to do with.

He played all around an inswinger from Umesh Yadav and was struck on the front pad in the first innings, and when the same thing happened in the second against Ishant Sharma, Markram opted not to review.

He would have survived had he gone upstairs, and maybe even avoided a pair. Of course, it happens that players get it wrong and don't always know when to ask for a referral. There's even some suggestion that Markram's partner, Dean Elgar, could have had a say, but the resignation with which Markam accepted his fate told a story. He looked as though he was done. Not forever, but done with this tour.

Markram's hang-dog expression when he walked after that dismissal was reminiscent of the way the previous opener South Africa took to India, Stiaan van Zyl, left the field in 2015. And van Zyl's story could serve as a cautionary tale. Van Zyl, also considered a rising star on the domestic scene, scored a century on debut against West Indies, played a minor part in the rained-out series in Bangladesh, and then went to India, where he collected 56 runs from five innings. All five times, he was dismissed by R Ashwin. Van Zyl's problem appeared to be an inability to read the offspinner's line. He was rested for the final Test in Delhi, but brought back for the home series against England, where he failed to cross fifty in five innings. He was dropped for the final Test of that series and though he played one more match for South Africa, batting at No. 7 against New Zealand, his career was effectively over in India. Van Zyl has since signed a Kolpak deal.

South Africa cannot afford the same to happen with Markram and there are no immediate signs that it will. Markram does not face the insecurity some of the others claim to have had. Unlike Kyle Abbott, Markram has not been dropped for a crucial major tournament match, for example, and he doesn't face much competition either. There's some talk of the Malan brothers Pieter and Janneman from the Cobras being international quality, but no suggestion Markram will be displaced by one of them any time soon.

Opening batsmen are not easily replaced and South Africa took a long time to settle on Markram, so they are likely to stick with him. But how they manage him is an equally pressing matter.

Giving him the Ranchi Test off would be one way. Even though Heinrich Klaasen is not an opener, per se, South Africa can afford to gamble and let Markram sit on the sidelines, with the analyst, watching.

Then there needs to be an upskilling process. How can Markram get better on the subcontinent? He has already been part of the spin camp and the South African A sides, and he scored centuries against India A - 161, with Kuldeep Yadav, Shahbaz Nadeem and Jalaj Saxena in the opposition - and Board President's XI in the lead-up to the Test series, so what more can be done? Another county stint, perhaps? An IPL deal? Or just the sheer value of experience, which du Plessis said helped him after the last India tour?

The answer may actually lie in the bigger picture of South Africa's coaching landscape. After the World Cup cleanout, South Africa no longer have spin consultant Claude Henderson on board or a specialist batting coach. Both those things may change when permanent appointments for a director of cricket and team director are made, and both could prove crucial for the short- to medium-term future.

South Africa's players, like any others, need some guidance. Their batsmen, especially so. They have spent the last two home summers negotiating unreasonably seamer-friendly conditions and the last two away trying to negotiate slower, spinner-friendly surfaces. The result has been a drop in all of their averages and a dip in their collective confidence. Markram is not the exception. But South Africa need to act quickly to ensure the slide does not get any steeper, otherwise you will read many more stories like this. 

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