Youthful cricket glory is no future guarantee
Ten years ago and a South African under-19 side full of zest and youthful hope flew to Bangladesh for the 2004 under-19 World Cup. They embarked on a stuttering campaign, beating India and England but losing to Sri Lanka and the West Indies. Their nadir arrived on February 18 in the less than salubrious confines of Chittagong's Divisional Stadium, where they lost narrowly to Nepal.
It is safe to say that the side, coached by current national coach Russell Domingo, slipped back into the country with considerably less fanfare than what greeted Aiden Markram's victorious under-19s last weekend.
The consensus within Cricket South Africa (CSA) circles is that the 2004 and 2006 editions of the under-19 World Cup represented a trough in an otherwise high-flying series of campaigns.
Organisation insiders were not best-pleased to have lost to Nepal – a "Nepalling" loss, quipped some – and new plans and programmes were bedded down.
Cubs weeks for players just out of school were introduced, national age-group camps became a regular feature of the calendar and the processes for identifying talent were sharpened.
"Nowadays, we certainly have a talent acceleration programme we can be proud of," says Niels Momberg, CSA's youth and tertiary manager, and a man who, with other dedicated professionals such as Max Jordaan and Ray Jennings, has done much to professionalise high school cricket.
Markram, the current under-19 skipper, was a cubs week find. He matriculated from Pretoria Boys High in 2012 but was unable to elbow his way into the Northern Gauteng side in that year's Coca-Cola Week.
Deon Botes, a master at Boys High, alerted scouts and people in the know to Markram's ability and, having by now enrolled at Tukkies as a first-year student, he was pulled into cubs structures.
He did so well in a national cubs tournament that he was drafted into the under-19 set-up, playing in a quadrangular tournament in Visakhapatnam, India, last September. Although they lost the final, the baby Proteas scored several memorable victories against the hosts, Australia and Zimbabwe along the way.
"It's acknowledged now that the tournament played a huge role in the development of that side," says Momberg, one of the major changes being when Yaseen Valli lost his captaincy to Markram for the World Cup.
By all accounts a dignified and understated leader, Markram was named player of the tournament for his 370 World Cup runs at an average of 123. He scored two 100s in the Emirates and shepherded South Africa over the line with a not-out 50 against Pakistan in Saturday's final – which suggests that, although CSA's structures might be running at optimum levels, there is an issue or two afoot when it comes to the selection of the Northern Gauteng Coca-Cola week side.
Markram might have scored many of the under-19s' runs but teams also win matches because there is chemistry between the players, the priceless understanding that results in the taking of remarkable catches and supporting each other in tricky situations. Insiders say that the 2014 side is a rich compound: a nice blend of supportive individuals who bought into coach Jennings's ethos and listened carefully to their captain when he spoke.
The story is told, for example, of Kagiso Rabada, the fast bowler from Gauteng who took six for 25 in the semifinal against Australia, coming into his own under Jennings and Markram.
Everyone in their place
After one game, the team gathered for a debrief and chat in a circle but Rabada, revelling in his new-found confidence, found the seating plan unacceptable because he felt his skipper was sitting in the wrong place. He changed the plan, installed Markram where he thought he should be, and wasn't happy until the original oversight was addressed.
It's the kind of story that wouldn't be told if the team had lost to Nepal but the fact of the matter is that they swaggered past the West Indies, pummelled Canada and disposed of Afghanistan.
Thanks largely to Rabada, they avoided tripping up where they had stumbled so often before – against Australia in the semis – and after bowling out Pakistan cheaply they only needed to keep their shape to become junior world champions.
Lest we get too carried away, a reminder. A young fast bowler called Matthew Arnold was part of the under-19 set up in 2006. Like Rabada, "he also bowled at 140km [an hour] and knocked people over and scared them," says Momberg.
Exactly like Rabada, Arnold was predicted to be the next big fast-bowling thing, but injuries and changes to his action halted his progress.
Today he plays Premier League cricket for Pirates in Gauteng, occasionally relieving the boredom by playing for the Strikers. He gets watched by no one but an umpire, a scorer and his long-suffering girlfriend.
Most of this year's under-19s will be lucky if they get this far.