Cape Town – There is something irresistibly exciting about a young, potential bolter being unleashed into international cricket a little ahead of expectation.
So if the clearly bright, talented 22-year-old Aiden Markram were to earn a daring call-up, as is being urged in some circles, to the South African Test squad for their next – and major – challenge in England later in the year, this writer won’t exactly be retreating to beneath the couch in sobbing misery and horror.
Let’s be clear on that; I’m not discounting the possibility of him coming off in Test whites, quickly. He wouldn’t be the first wet-behind-the-ears, slightly left-field selection to do so.
After all, Markram has just ended the domestic season with another surprisingly mature, commanding innings of 161 in the Titans’ massacre of the Warriors in the Momentum One-Day Cup final at Centurion on Friday – a follow-up to his record-breaking 183 against the Lions at the Wanderers exactly a fortnight earlier.
Again he looked an organised, technically tight opener who presents a broad blade and seems to play down the correct line an awful lot of the time.
But would it be the right move to catapult him to Test cricket shortly? And to have to debut in England?
My gut feel at this juncture – even if it is being teased increasingly by his stirring delivery at lower levels – stays “no”.
Bearing in mind that there is no more domestic first-class cricket to monitor until the tour takes places well into our winter, my preference, if the selectors feel they have to look beyond the current squad for a partner for more settled Dean Elgar, would be Markram’s patient, consistently fine-performing Titans team-mate Heino Kuhn.
The sometimes wicketkeeper (that’s no bad extra feather-in-cap for a touring party, is it?) may be celebrating his 33rd birthday during Saturday, but bear in mind that the currently beleaguered Stephen Cook – dropped for the final Test against New Zealand at Hamilton – is 34.
Cook was debatably replaced by general reserve batsman Theunis de Bruyn at Seddon Park, and despite his non-specialist credentials to do the upfront task, there is still a case for saying we don’t yet know whether De Bruyn might cut it there – he faced only three balls in the first innings of the drawn Test and was disastrously run out for 12 in the second after a comical collision with Hashim Amla.
Still, the issue of the second opener remains fluid, and frankly even Cook, who has shown with three prior centuries in the format that he can thrive in Test cricket, may warrant avoiding the chop for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy series — especially if it is felt the attack-minded Quinton de Kock is just too valuable at the No 7 “gate to the tail” to be shifted markedly upward.
Yes, Cook has a problem with seaming tracks in cooler climes – not that too many batsmen would necessarily cry out for such circumstances anyway – but in English high summer (when the series takes place) you can also run into surfaces that are sun-baked and almost gun-barrel straight.
Yet if it is felt a new figure from outside is required for the tough task of seeing off Messrs Anderson, Broad and company with a gleaming ball in England’s decidedly “temperate” climes, the smart choice does seem to lie primarily between Markram and Kuhn and their interesting divide in age terms of some 10 or 11 years.
Markram, victorious captain of the SA under-19 team of 2014, has his feet wisely rooted to the ground, it seems, and reportedly admitted in the lead-up to Friday’s One-Day Cup showpiece that the prospect of a full Proteas call-up pretty soon was “quite scary”.
He also spoke of the national team being “the end goal” for him.
Gist of message? The young man is in no mad hurry to be thrown to the wolves – as would near-certainly be the case if blooded in the unique, sometimes two-jerseys Test landscape of England.
Centurion-born, he has overwhelmingly grown up on hard, fast Highveld tracks. (Commentator and former Test spinner Paul Harris described the pitch for Friday’s limited-overs final as “a piece of the N1”.)
So has Kuhn, of course, as he hails from Piet Retief and been Pretoria-orientated for virtually all of his significant cricketing life.
But there is a difference: Kuhn has immeasurably greater experience of playing on differing pitches – for example, at the South African coast – and that just seems to make him a less risky pick for England, and taking on the home-manufactured Dukes ball, by my book.
It is worth bearing in mind that Test candidates, in a tried and trusted formula worldwide, have almost always been gauged primarily on first-class form and trends – and as recently as last season Markram was still playing in the iffy Sunfoil 3-Day Cup (second-tier) competition where he averaged 43.87.
Nor is it as though Markram is yet glued down totally as an opening batsmen in the extended format. For example, he batted at No 3 in his last Sunfoil Series match this season, scoring seven and 17 against the Warriors in Benoni, even if he still ended up pleasingly averaging over 50 from seven outings.
If we are eventually to see a “make” rather than possible “break” outcome for the young batsman as a Test player, it just seems so much more appropriate an option, for example, to give him a maiden crack instead when considerably more moderate Bangladesh visit our own shores for the first series of the home summer in 2017/18.
Meanwhile, however, Kuhn had another satisfying enough season of his own, passing 500 runs again and averaging a touch under 44; his first-class career sports almost 9,000 runs, clearly a man who has stood the test of time.
That intelligent critic Boeta Dippenaar reminded as much on one of SuperSport’s chat shows in midweek, urging an overdue — he felt – Test chance for Kuhn, who is also a nippy and nimble outfielder when not wearing the ‘keeping gloves.
Hopefully the national selectors will not have forgotten, either, Kuhn’s superlative Sunfoil Series in 2015/16, when he smashed 1,126 runs at a blistering 62.55. Those are very, very illuminating numbers.
Kuhn, or Cook: you may feel very differently, but they’d remain – just for the time being — either of my own preferred go-to guys for the problem second spot at the top of the SA Test order, given the very particular job at hand during our winter.
Even if I wouldn’t savage any Markram summoning to the cause in England as a lamentably loony move: he does seem a fairly special international-in-the-making.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing