Cape Town — A new era that promised so much for the first half of the opening day of the two-match Test series against the West Indies descended into familiar problems for the Proteas at Centurion.
Eight wickets — and seven in a dramatic final session — lost for 79 runs saw the Proteas stumble to stumps at 314/8.
Everything had looked so much easier when the Proteas’ prodigal son Aiden Markram was at the crease.
And to think it looked as if it was all over for Markram just a short while ago. The brightest spark of his generation, who had been destined to play Test cricket since a teenager, had appeared to have used up all his lifelines.
Even his most staunchest of supporters could not shield him anymore. It seemed Markram was destined to live the nomadic life of white-ball batter.
But yet, Markram is back in the Test whites of the Proteas. And established, once more, at the top of order, he is playing like the outrageous talent that put the Australians to the sword in his fledgling years.
Admittedly the West Indian bowling attack and mild-mannered Centurion surface Markram encountered did not severely test the limitations that had previously stalled his Test career, but this time it does all seem different. Honestly.
His 115 off 174 balls (18x4) was not only his sixth — and first since Pakistan two years ago — Test century. It was a statement of intent from someone who is no longer playing like there is a guillotine hanging over his head, but rather the holder of a lottery ticket handed to him by new coach Shukri Conrad.
It certainly showed in the way he beautifully stroked the ball all around Centurion. Just earlier this month that he drove the Sunrisers Eastern Cape into the inaugural SA20 final with a magical century at the same venue.
There may not have been many on the grass banks to appreciate it this time around, but Tuesday's entertainment was of equally high quality.
That cover drive, where anticipation, timing, footwork and bat speed all instinctively merge, was on high definition display. Equally, through the use of his strong bulging forearms Markram ensured that anything dragged short was despatched with disdain to the square boundary.
Markram’s presence certainly benefited his opening partner Dean Elgar too. In conjunction with the relief of duty — Elgar was playing in his first Test since being deposed by Temba Bavuma — the former captain played with a greater sense of freedom than previously.
It helped that Jermaine Blackwood put down a chance in the slip cordon when Elgar had just 11, but the Proteas’ openers were certainly much more positive than has been the case in the recent past.
The fresh mindset yielded an opening stand of 141 in 35.3 overs, which was also the Proteas’ first of more than 100 since March last year, and provided the new era of Bavuma and Conrad just the start they would have hoped for.
Elgar’s eventual dismissal may have been uncharacteristic with the southpaw opening his blade to a rising Alzarri Joseph delivery, only to guide it to a diving Blackwood, who atoned for his earlier error, at third man.
But this is how this new Proteas team wants to play. Attack first. Ask questions later.
How they certainly don’t want to go about their business is what transpired in the late afternoon session.
Debutant Tony de Zorzi (28) has looked every bit an accomplished Test batter after overcoming an expectant tentative start, and played his part in a solid 78-run partnership for the second wicket with Markram before suffering a brain fade that set in motion a collapse that nobody saw coming.
De Zorzi was run out after being sent back while attempting a third run and it provided the tourists with the lift they needed in the field.
Bavuma, on his Test captaincy debut, followed two balls later when Joseph trapped the skipper plumb in front for a duck. Markram departed shortly afterwards before Heinrich Klaasen (20), Senuran Muthusamy (3), Keegan Petersen (14) and Kagiso Rabada (8) all fell during a frenetic late afternoon in the capital.
The lanky Joseph (3/60) was the standout West Indies bowler and the tourists may have been left contemplating why it took almost two sessions for the rest of the attack to find their line and length.