Have India prepared for Aiden Markram?
AB de Villiers. Hashim Amla. Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock. Dean Elgar. Temba Bavuma.
It's a batting line-up of superstars fabricated right from the heart of the Rainbow Nation and brewing ever so strongly to unleash their fury on the visiting Indians, who by the way have had a run akin to the rapacious Australians of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Make no mistake, this Indian team is the real deal.
Guaranteed much of their success have come on the back of their hegemony on familiar conditions back home, but that cannot undermine the stupendous amount of runs that their batting line-up has churned out, or the sheer grit and steadfastness this outfit has flaunted in the past couple of years.
But now they are up against a Test team that owned the Australians in Australia, has a superhuman, out of the world superstar, a bearded warrior with the resilience of a Russian soldier deserted in the snowlands up north and a fast bowling battery backed up by a couple of powerbanks capable of recharging the unit whenever required.
The South African batting line-up is daunting. India would take confidence from the fact that five of the six (except Quinton de Kock who was unceremoniously dumped before that wretched Indian tour) struggled to get runs or play out balls back in India during a disastrous Test tour. That said, South Africa in South Africa is an altogether different proposition.
And they have a young superstar who India probably haven't prepared for way too much.
Meet Aiden Markram, the sole captain in the country to get his hands on a World Cup (the under-19 World Cup in 2014). The flamboyant, flashy, composed, mature opener made his mark in a team of superstars at the Titans franchise and made the step up to Test cricket rather seamlessly.
To put things statistically, Markram set the stage alight with a 97 in his debut outing - marred only by a freakish run-out - and followed it up with a classy, elegant 143. He has just two Tests to his name to-date - against Bangladesh at home - but that does not in any way mask the tremendous composure and exuberance he displayed in his debut outing.
?To state that South Africa were in dire need for an opener to complement the steely Dean Elgar would be an understatement. They were scouting so hard that they did not mind unleashing a 33 year old opener with a flawed technique against an Australian seam attack capable of burning down the pitch.
Markram was picked only when the hullabaloo created by a national uproar knocked down the selectors’ doors and grabbed them by the collar of their shirts. When it did materialise Markram stayed true to his ardent fans. Runs flowed, like they had in the SunFoil series, South Africa's domestic First-class competition.
"Aiden is a very smart guy in terms of summing up environments without imposing himself on the situation. People gravitate towards him without him going and looking for it so he has an ability to lead without trying too hard. As the season went on, he grew constantly. On the tactical side, he will develop. He is not scared to ask the thoughts of senior players and even more junior ones. People have seen what he can do”, Shukri Conrad, South Africa's National Academy coach told ESPNCricinfo a few months before his selection.
In the 2016/17 SunFoil series, Markram slammed 565 runs in 7 matches, averaging 51.36 and scoring two centuries and as many half-centuries. If that was a sign of things to come, 2017/18 was the real deal. Due to national commitments he played lesser than usual but remained in the top 5 run-scorers list with 439 runs in 3 matches at a whopping average of 109.75.
What stands out is his maturity and composure as a youngster. He was sold down the river by Dean Elgar when on 97 in his debut innings, but the manner in which he composed himself and spoke to the media speaks volumes about the kind of player he is.
"I have never really looked at the game from a selfish perspective. I think I wanted it (the hundred) so badly for him I caught myself in no man's land," an adamant Markram had later said, as revealed by ESPNCricinfo. "Dean and I have come a long way and developed a good relationship. It was tough for him and a bitter pill to swallow. But I told him at tea that he really needs to kick on and that's all that matters."
A few days later, he was celebrating his maiden hundred, and it came as no surprise to anybody who had seen Markram through the ranks. His ability to play pace and spin with equal ease makes him a potentially threatening option at the top of the order. He may not have a World of experience behind him but if India haven't done their homework, Markram could catch them by surprise, even blow them away.