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Aiden Markram’s superpower has become his Achilles heel

Aiden Markram’s superpower has become his Achilles heel
Aiden Markram of South Africa during the second 2022 Betway One Day Series between South Africa and India at Boland in Paarl on 21 January 2022. (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky / BackpagePix)

The timing of the Indian Premier League has given the Protea Test selectors a pass. No one wants to drop the fast-scoring Aiden Markram, who looks so good when he’s thumping boundaries. But it’s time to accept that Markram’s technique needs to change if he’s going to be consistently successful in Test cricket.

When Aiden Markram burst on to the Test scene in September 2017, South African cricket fans were certain they had a new star to follow for a decade or more.

His first season’s performance not only ticked all the statistical boxes (more than 1,000 runs at an average of 47.47 and four centuries) but his big innings against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Australia showed much more: elegance, power, confidence and great timing.

The most notable shot in his armoury was the forceful drive off the back foot through the covers. This is a shot that only the best players can do well. It requires perfect timing to meet the ball at the top of its bounce and outstanding coordination to get the hands high enough to keep the ball down.

Markram’s particular superpower was his ability to play this shot from an open position; in other words, with his feet pointing down the wicket and his chest open.

This should not be possible. Conventional coaching dictates that batters point their right foot (back foot for a right-hander) towards the point fielder (or parallel with the batting crease).

This allows the batter to get their eyes in line with the ball so they can make last-minute decisions about whether to play the ball or leave it alone.

Keegan Petersen’s “side-on” technique is key to understanding his success at Test level. Former Indian great Ravi Shastri was so impressed by Petersen against India’s pace attack that he compared him to the legendary Gundappa Viswanath.

With his head over middle stump and the ball on or outside off-stump, Markram is effectively guessing the line of the ball.

In limited-overs cricket or against bowlers below the highest class this doesn’t matter so much. But with three slips and a gully in place for extended periods in the Test-match format and the world’s best bowlers consistently delivering high-pace deliveries in the “corridor of uncertainty”, he has to hope that his eye will save him.

Open to error

Markram is also more open now than he was when he lashed the Australians to all corners of Kingsmead in 2017. Or when his astonishing 169 off 129 balls (with seven sixes) at Newlands for the Titans showed he was on quite a different level from other players in domestic cricket. A long career in all forms of international cricket seemed assured.

Not only was he less open in those innings, he also played the ball later then, which is always a good thing.

The mention of Australia brings to mind the great run-scorer Steve Smith. I have been told that Smith is an example of another player who plays “open”. He does not.

Smith puts his right foot in the conventional position parallel to the crease initially against shorter balls on the offside. Smith’s trick is to leave his left leg dangling over the leg stump (making him look like he’s open). He then pivots to that left leg with amazing speed if he spots that the ball can be played through the leg side.

Markram’s open method requires everything else to be in perfect working order.

When his timing or coordination or perception or footwork or anything else is not at 100%, he will nick the ball to third slip or gully. International bowlers know this by now. It’s not form or confidence that is holding Markram back from his early promise in the Test arena: it’s where he puts his right foot.

One can only hope that he’s able to make the adjustment because he’s a massive asset to South African cricket. Apart from his magnificent fielding, he’s a leader (he captained a World Cup-winning SA Under-19 team), he’s articulate and, based on the evidence of something I saw after a day’s play in New Zealand, he’s a nice guy. When all the players turned for the dressing room after a hard day in the field, Markram stayed on the pitch to have an encouraging word with young Lutho Sipamla.

The Protea selectors would do well to have a few words of their own with the coaching staff before they next have a chance to select Aiden Markram. Markram with his superpower restored would be a great boost for the Test team. DM168

John Young started coaching cricket in 1983 and writing about the game in 1996.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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