As Aiden Markram took the reins of the South Africa side in the second ODI against India at his home ground in Centurion, parallels had already been drawn between his appointment and that of Graeme Smith in 2003.
Smith was just a 22-year-old when he was handed the Proteas captaincy and went on to become one of the finest skippers around in an 11-year tenure which lasted until 2014. Although, it has to be said, the gritty left-hander had 22 ODIs and a Test double-hundred under his belt after playing more than a year of international cricket before he made his captaincy bow.
In comparison, 23-year-old Markram had played in only two ODIs before Sunday’s clash against India. He does, however, have two Test tons under his name already having made six appearances in the format and more importantly, he remains the only South African to have won a World Cup in any age group.
Markram led South Africa to the ICC U-19 World Cup title in 2014, securing their maiden crown with a win against Pakistan in the finals. For a country which has notoriously underachieved in ICC tournaments, that win actually sticks out as an anomaly.
A natural leader, the Centurion-born man led the South Africa A side before being appointed skipper of the Titans in September last year. Being given the captaincy of a Titans outfit boasting the likes of Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar and Morne Morkel is no mean feat.
His appointment for the senior South Africa side has naturally divided opinions with many questioning his readiness for the job. The skepticism seems to be unwarranted though, for Markram’s ascension is not a short-term fix but rather some sensible long-term planning.
He might not even have been given the captaincy had AB de Villiers been fit. In fast-tracking Markram to the captaincy, South Africa are hoping to avoid a repeat of the post-Smith era which has seen the Hashim Amla and De Villiers juggle with the role before it finally settled with du Plessis last year in all formats.
With the latter now 32-years-old, it makes sense to groom Markram with an eye to promoting him to the full-time position ahead of the World Cup in England next year. While Smith’s appointment was one for the present at the time, Markram’s is one for the future.
As Mosaddek Hossain chipped his shot tamely into the hands of the mid-on fielder, Rangana Herath held his arms aloft. Hossain had just become Herath’s 500th victim in international cricket.
Muralitharan and Vaas are unanimously considered as two legends of the game, an accolade which has rarely been associated with Herath. The unorthodox left-arm spinner’s career has been a curious one. Having made his Test debut for Sri Lanka all the way back in September 1999, it would seem strange that the ongoing match against Bangladesh is only Herath’s 88th appearance.
This anomaly can partly be explained by Muralitharan’s greatness. Between making his debut until 2008, Herath only played in 14 Tests for Sri Lanka with Muralitharan untouchable in the spinner’s role.
Those 14 matches yielded only 36 wickets for Herath at an unremarkable average of 39. Since then, he has taken 373 wickets in 74 Tests at an average of 27. It is not hard to figure out why there has been such a great contrast between the first half of Herath’s career to the second.
For much of his international career, Herath has lived in the shadows of the greatest bowler Sri Lanka has ever produced. It was only after Muralitharan’s retirement from the game in July 2010 that Herath’s career truly prospered.
With 409 Test wickets to his name now, Herath is the leading left-arm spinner in Test cricket history with former New Zealand player Daniel Vettori a distant second with 363 scalps. His 33 five-wicket hauls is the fifth-highest ever and the most for any active Test cricketers. For reference, the great Shane Warne recorded 37 five-wicket hauls while India’s Anil Kumble made 35.
Unfortunately for Herath, his peak arrived at a time of transition for Sri Lankan cricket with the retirements of Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Having lived in the shadows of Murali for so long, Herath has had to contend with an unenviable job of propping up a Sri Lankan side in constant decline.
Both these factors have led to much of his achievements being underrated. Who knows how highly Herath might have been regarded had he enjoyed the luxury of playing in the dominant Sri Lanka side of old but there is no arguing that his name deserved to be said in the same breath as the likes of Kumble if not Warne and Muralitharan themselves.
One session was all it took for South Africa to wipe out India’s remaining seven wickets on the final day as the hosts completed a 135-run win in the second Test at Centurion to clinch the three-match series.
On a pitch which had Morne Morkel convinced he was bowling in the subcontinent, India’s much vaunted batting card once again collapsed like a house of cards to leave one wondering what the fuss was all about in the first place.
After four innings in South Africa, India have crossed the 200-run mark only once, in the first innings at Centurion. Their scorecards in the series so far read: 130, 135, 258 and 141, a dismal run for a side which has established itself as top-ranked Test outfit over the past 18 months.
Bar two standout individual knocks in Hardik Pandya’s 93 in the first Test and Virat Kohli’s 153 at Centurion, India’s batting has been shambolic to say the least with none of the other batsmen putting together any innings of note.
If the batting performance by the Indians looks grim right now, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the tourists could have very well folded for a 100 odd in all four of their innings so far if not for the two individual heroics.
Kohli and India mentioned that they were not looking to prove a point as they embarked on their first of many tough trials to come overseas in 2018. However, despite what was said in public, there is no doubt that improving their overseas results was the biggest priority for the Indians having established themselves as the indisputable top dogs in Test cricket following a period of sustained domination at home.
Within two Tests, the South Africans have exposed all the deficiencies in the techniques of the Indian batsmen. While there is a fine line between defensive and attacking batting, the Indians have been caught in the middle with nowhere to hide. When they have tried to dig in, they have only crumbled after a brief resistance without making any indents in the scorecard while they have perished more often than nought while attempting to attack their way out of trouble.
Without any tour matches to prepare themselves for such an important series, India’s batsmen who were roared like tigers back home have been more likes foxes caught in the headlights in South Africa.
More than their shortcomings with technique, it has been the lack of discipline which has done India in so far. In the defeat at Centurion, the visitors lost the all important wickets of Cheteshwar Pujara and Pandya to needless run-outs in the first innings. Their second innings was no better with Pujara succumbing once again in similar fashion to become the first Indian to be run-out twice in the same Test.
India’s batsmen have simply failed to put enough of a premium on their wickets in the tour and have subsequently paid the price in a game of small margins.
Then there is their fielding where they have failed to latch on to their catches at crucial junctures of the game. Parthiv Patel was in the spotlight at Centurion where he dropped a sitter before failing to even attempt to grab a knick by Dean Elgar in the second that left Kohli and the others scratching their heads in disbelief.
While South Africa have themselves been guilty of throwing away wickets to cheap run-outs, they have been nothing short of exemplary on the field, especially with their catching.
India’s bowling has been their only saving grace on the tour so far and even there they have fallen some way short of their South African counterparts. While they have picked up 20 wickets in both Tests, they have allowed the hosts to escape from a position of peril in both matches.
Questionable selections by Kohli have been the hot topic of debate in the series, India’s woes are many and it is difficult to point the blame at a single department. Having failed their very first overseas acid Test now, the warning signs are already looming for the tours of England and Australia to come later this year.
With the norm of failures abroad continuing, it will be difficult for Kohli’s India to stake their claim as a truly great Test side. They still have one Test to salvage some pride but for now, they are only strengthening the notion of India being tigers at home but duds overseas.