When South Africa’s biggest find of the past few years is discussed, the names of Kagiso Rabada, Quinton de Kock and Andile Phehlukwayo crop up. But while these outrageously talented players need the right kind of guidance and coaching to achieve what they are capable of achieving, a young, seemingly innoxious left-arm spinner has made rapid strides in South African cricket. Yes, we are talking about Keshav Maharaj, the underrated, non-discussed Proteas spinner.
Maharaj has been a huge factor in South Africa’s rise in the Test rungs from no.7 to no.2. In 12 Tests since his debut in 2016, Maharaj has claimed 50 Test wickets, the sixth highest by any bowler during this period.
But what sets apart Maharaj from the rest of the spinners like Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Rangana Herath and Nathan Lyon is the fact that he has played all of his Tests in conditions tailor-made for quicker bowlers. While the four spinners above him in the list of wicket-takers have played most of their matches on square turners, Maharaj has made his presence felt on green-tinged wickets.
His 50 wickets have come at an average of 26.12 and a strike rate of 53.8. The strike rate is better than the likes of the Indian spinners, Ashwin and Jadeja. He adds further value with his ability to contain the flow of runs. His economy rate in Test cricket is a miserly 2.91.
South Africa have had pretty good spinners in cricket. Names like Hugh Tayfield, Paul Adams and Imran Tahir when talking of influential South African spinners. They even had a very effective spinner in Paul Harris during the Graeme Smith reign when the Proteas dominated the harsh World of Test cricket.
But what really puts Maharaj on a pedestal is his ability to switch between attack and defence in the blink of an eye. He can go from playing the holding role in one over to attacking with several men around the bat in the very next. He isn’t the greatest of turners of the red cherry, but can exert relentless pressure with his miserly stump to stump line, flight and drift. He forces the batsmen to make mistakes and it has worked for him like a charm thus far in Test cricket.
“He had the opportunity of rubbing shoulders with Anil Kumble and Kiran More when the Indian team was touring the South Africans. Kumble gave him some valuable advice regarding the pace of the bowl and asked him to concentrate on being somewhere close to the 90kmh mark to ensure he had control over the play,” Maharaj’s father, Athmanand Maharaj had said in an interview.
The pace variations still play a vital role in Maharaj’s mode of attack. CricViz points out that the spinner’s wicket of Imrul Kayes in the second innings was 4.66% quicker than his normal delivery speed. While the pitch played little role in assisting the spinner, Maharaj managed to make the sub-continental team sweat with his pace variations and ended up with figures of 4/25.
He has had an influential role to play in Tests where South Africa have suffered setbacks through injuries. On his debut in Perth, Dale Steyn walked off the field with an injury on Day 1 and never bowled again in the Test. But the Dolphins spinner took up the challenge and returned with figures of 3/56 in the first innings including the big scalp of Steven Smith.
In England, when Vernon Philander was out injured for the second Test, Maharaj stepped up and picked three wickets apiece, including the vital ones of Ben Stokes and Johnny Bairstow in quick succession in the first innings.
Here at Potchefstroom, with Morne Morkel walking off injured, South Africa were a bowler short but Maharaj combined with Kagiso Rabada to destroy Bangladesh. The left-arm spinner grabbed the wicket of Imrul Kayes before returning to finish off the tail and claim a four-wicket haul.
“I’m not a 9-5 guy I am a 9-12 guy. I love working on my own. Left in my own little shell. It gives me time to reflect and be better able to find my strengths. I am responsible for my life. Also turning all my negatives into positives has helped me a lot”, Maharaj had said in an interview.
The hard work is eventually paying off as the spinner has become an indispensable part of the South African Test attack under Faf du Plessis. Maharaj is du Plessis’ go-to-man in the format inspite of the tall presence of some menacing quicker bowlers. This in itself reflects the kind of impact Maharaj has had in Test cricket since his debut almost a year back.
CricViz revealed that Maharaj has a dot ball percentage of 76.2 in 2017 when the global average is 70.53. It is this kind of pressure that leads batsmen to go for the ugly, unnecessary hoick and results in a wicket. Maharaj’s figures would have read much better in this Test had Dean Elgar held onto a couple of straightforward chances at slip in the first innings.
All said and done, the young spinner has found a way to mark his presence felt in every single game although the kind of wickets he has played on thus far (in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England) haven’t favoured the spinners. It would be interesting to see how he goes in sub-continental conditions but before that, he has a humungous test when his team takes on India and its wristy batsmen who tamed Rangana Herath, in the next few months.
For now, Maharaj is well on his way to be one of South Africa’s most stable spinners in a long, long time in this format of the game. Unlike the likes of Rabada and de Kock, Maharaj hasn’t arrived in the raw, unmoulded form. He is glittering diamond from the best of Kimberly mines, polished and well cut.