November 4, 2016 – Perth – Australia vs South Africa – day 2, 1st Test
Keshav Maharaj, the seemingly innocuous left-arm spinner came around the wicket to Steven Smith, the prolific Australian skipper, on the second day of the first Test. The ball was angled in on leg stump and spun towards off. Smith stepped out to meet the ball, missed the tuck and was rapped on the pads. A vociferous appeal followed and the umpire raised his finger. Maharaj had made a huge breakthrough for the Proteas in a Test where they were a bowler short after Steyn’s injury. South Africa went on to win the Test.
March 9, 2017 – Dunedin – New Zealand vs South Africa – day 2, 1st Test
On Day 2 of the first Test between South Africa and New Zealand, Jeet Raval, the gritty Kiwi opener was making things difficult for the Proteas in the company of his skipper, Kane Williamson. Enter Keshav Maharaj. He forced Raval into a mistake and the left-hander chipped Maharaj straight to mid-wicket to end a 102 run stand. Maharaj picked up one more by the end of the day, the wicket of Henry Nicholls. The Test ended in a draw.
July 15, 2017 – Trent Bridge – England vs South Africa – day 2, 2nd Test
Morne Morkel had gotten rid of the dangerous Joe Root but England had a strong lower middle-order that had troubled South Africa in the first Test. Once again Keshav Maharaj stepped up and bowled tight lines, resulting in the crucial wicket of Ben Stokes. He wasn’t done though and broke through the defences of Johnny Bairstow with a perfectly flighted delivery that would have made the legends of spin bowling proud.
Something stands out in these vital dismissals by Keshav Maharaj. Coming from a country which boasts of a thick line in the history of fantastic seam bowlers and a thin line in that of spin bowlers, the odds were stacked against Maharaj. But what differentiates Maharaj from his predecessors in recent months, Dane Piedt, Simon Harmer, Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi, is the ability to make his presence felt in crucial moments of the game.
The above examples are some of the big wickets he has taken since his Test debut. What stands out here is that all three of the above dismissals came on pitches that were tailor-made for fast bowlers. They did not come on a wearing fourth or fifth-day pitch which let out a puff of dust every time a tweaker landed one in the rough. They came on the second day when the blades of grass still shone bright, a day where the likes of Philander, Starc and Anderson lick their lips at the sight of the pitch.
It is not often that South Africa have had the luxury of a good containing spinner. Paul Harris did a fine holding job in the Graeme Smith regime but the spinners since then have failed to form an effective partnership with the fast bowlers. It is at this point that Linda Zondi decided to throw caution to the wind before an all important Australian tour. Dane Piedt, who had been impressive against England in the home Tests, found himself dropped for Maharaj and Shamsi, leading to an outcry in the country.
But all it took Maharaj was one Test to silence the critics. Here was a spinner who turned up on his debut in the toughest of conditions for a spinner (Perth) to nip out the best batsman and captain of the opposition. He went on to take two five-wicket hauls in New Zealand and just when it looked like England had sorted him out with their aggressive approach against him at Lord’s in the first innings of the first Test, Maharaj triggered a collapse in the second, getting rid of Joe Root. In the second Test, he fared even better, daring Ben Stokes and forcing a mistake before cleaning up Johnny Bairstow with a dream delivery.
That is Keshav Maharaj for you. He has this uncanny ability to switch between the holding job and attacking job in the blink of an eye. It is a rare talent to identify the match situation and catch the game by the scruff of the neck. Maharaj has it. That separates him from every other spinner in the history of South African Test cricket.
South Africa picked two fast bowlers, Chris Morris and Duanne Olivier, to cover the absence of their leader, Kagiso Rabada. They were hoping that the duo would work in tandem to make up for Rabada’s loss. But when both were smashed out of the attack by a belligerent Joe Root, du Plessis turned to his trusted spinner. Maharaj contained the scoring rate before switching to attacking mode once Root was back in the hut.
“Maharaj’s main attribute is he is immensely accurate, so if the pitch offers him a little bit of something to work with, more often than not he will find the right areas. He already has two five-wicket hauls in his nine Tests for South Africa to date, and given his success in the first innings, who’s to say he won’t add a third in the second? He has been a real find”, former South African skipper, Shaun Pollock, revealed after the day’s play at Trent Bridge.
He was right. This was a ground where spinners had averaged over 50 in the last seven or eight Tests and Maharaj turned up to deliver a spell of 10-1-21-3. More importantly, two of his three wickets ended England’s fight in the innings. Finally, South African cricket have a spinner who can give the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin, Rangana Herath, Nathan Lyon and Ravindra Jadeja a run for their money.
Chris Morris was all praise for Faf du Plessis after South Africa’s best day in England on this tour but the skipper would know that without men like Maharaj this day wouldn’t have been possible.