JOHANNESBURG – The future of the Proteas Test batting set-up flickered against Pakistan at the Wanderers on Friday.
The first two sessions would have warmed the hearts of those whom Cricket South Africa entrust with sustaining the sport’s development.
The pipeline they call it, and on social media, they say it’s always pumping.
There has been more talk about the future over the past couple of seasons as Morné Morkel and AB de Villiers, two players so essential to South Africa’s success in the latter stages of the previous decade, retired.
Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn and Faf du Plessis are also closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. So, what does the future hold?
There’s quite a bit to be optimistic about based on Friday’s play. Although, as the last session showed, there’s still a lot the new brigade need to learn.
To the first two sessions first, though, and the work of Aiden Markram.
De Villiers’ retirement has left many wondering about the entertainment aspect for the Proteas.
As effective as De Villiers was in his 114-match Test career, in which he averaged over 50, it was the entertainment he provided with the bat that made him such a star of the game.
No one wants to burden Markram with a tag of the ‘next AB’ – he lacks De Villiers’ shot-making variety for one thing.
But such is the purity of his shot-making, and at this stage of his career, especially his driving, that he really is the type of player who can put bums on seats and draw eyes to TV screens.
Dropped by Shan Masood at short leg on two, Markram took advantage of the opportunity to produce an enthralling exhibition of driving – behind square on the off-side, through the covers (both left and right of extra cover), straight through mid-on and mid-off.
When Pakistan sought to examine him against the short ball, he pulled with authority.
But other parts of his game worked strongly too – his defence, both on front and back foot – and he left well too. He ran smartly between the wickets.
It was an innings of the highest quality, and it helped the home team control the game in those first two sessions. Markram is 24 years old, this is his 14th Test.
Theunis de Bruyn is 26, playing in his ninth Test, and he strode to the wicket under enormous pressure following a series in which he has struggled to cope with skill of the Pakistan bowlers on some difficult pitches for batting.
The pressure he felt led to mistakes in both innings in Cape Town. He wasn’t exactly playing for his place here, but had he not made runs, the criticism there’s been before this match would have grown louder.
He scored 49 in just under two hours of batting, looked solid doing so, after a nervous start.
The irony was lost on no one that most of those runs were scored in the company of the bloke many feel should get his spot in the side, Zubayr Hamza.
The 23 year old, who is making debut here because the ICC suspended Faf du Plessis for not ensuring his bowlers got through their overs quicker at Newlands, played as if he belonged.
He hid his nerves well. He blocked his first couple of deliveries from the leg-spinner Shadab Khan, blocked a couple more straight ones from the dangerous Mohammad Amir and left a few wide tempters from the left-arm quick.
His first run came with a push into the off-side at the start of Amir’s next over, and two balls later he had first Test boundary – three balls after that, his first six.
Pakistan’s bowling in that hour before tea was poor, and for a debutant and another player out of form, it was just what was needed to ease the pressure.
But then came a real test for them after tea.
The Pakistanis were probably given a rollicking by coach Mickey Arthur and skipper Sarfraz Ahmed at the break, and in the next hour, the momentum switched.
Suddenly, the ball was reversing from Amir and Mohammad Abbas.
The authority with which Hamza and De Bruyn had played in compiling a fourth-wicket stand of 75 disappeared.
It was Pakistan who puffed out their chests. The youngsters got frazzled and South Africa collapsed, losing seven wickets for 32 runs in 17.2 overs after tea.
They had threatened to burn brightly on this first day; instead, they only flickered. One innings of 90, another of 49 and a third of 41.
Succumbing to the pressure wasn’t pretty. But they are lessons that must be learned if they are to thrive in the future.