In the course of time, Keshav Maharaj has become a very important member of the South African side…
The procession of a mighty contest between Australia and South Africa is most likely to end at the Wanderers in an anti-climactic fashion. The series, that will be renowned for the controversies and the tears that were shed by batting legend Steven Smith, will probably see a culmination with an Australian collapse – unlike the “fighting” spirit that they have displayed through the four games.
Leading the attack on Days 4 and 5, if needed, will be Keshav Maharaj who has stood out in his own ways to make a mark in conditions that traditionally assist the faster bowlers. The fact that South Africa went into the game at Johannesburg with a spinner for the first time since 2013 only reemphasised the importance of Maharaj in the side and in the particular series.
So far, he has picked up 16 wickets at an average of 32.81 and with the fourth innings track expected to have something for the spinner once the assistance for the faster bowlers end, the tally could go up even further. While Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander will utilise the variable bounce on offer in the first few overs, the spinner will come into play once the top-order offer any kind of resistance against the tiring pacers. The younger of the two faster bowlers have already looked lacking in energy after what has been a long season. He not only participated in all of South Africa’s ten Test matches but was a regular fixture in the ODI squad as well.
In the Australian first innings, Maharaj entered the attack to pick up the crucial wickets, first of Shaun Marsh at the end of Day 2 and then of Pat Cummins, after he had combined with skipper Tim Paine to post a frustrating partnership in a session when the South African bowlers seemed under the radar. He had Marsh dismissed for the third time in seven innings with a flighted delivery that was wide outside the edge. The batsman, defending for the turn, was unable to see the lack of spin that was on offer and ended up edging to AB de Villiers at slips.
The Faf du Plessis-led team had to agonisingly wait for around 28 overs after that to pick up the next wicket, with Paine combining with his fast bowler to put up a 99-run partnership. It was the spinner who came to the rescue once again as he sent back Cummins with a ball that was tossed up around the middle stump. He returned a few overs later to send back debutant Chadd Sayers to edge past Nathan Lyon in this series, whom he views as an inspiration.
“He is a world-class bowler. To get 300 wickets in non-sub[continental] conditions in 70-odd matches is spectacular,” Maharaj said. “Hopefully we can have a chat. We had a chat in Adelaide. His control is one thing he is really good at. He’s very consistent, doesn’t bowl too many bad balls, and it’s showing in his performances throughout his career.”
Expectedly then, if his Aussies counterpart got hints of assistance, notably when Lyon came out to bowl in the fourth over of the innings itself, Maharaj too will be licking his lips in anticipation. “I actually think it’s turning and bouncing too much,” Maharaj had observed at the end of a fruitful first innings performance. His plans ahead of the second innings remains simple – to wait for the batsmen to feel frustrated after being bogged down by the quicks so that they start attacking him. With the bowler delivering the balls in the good areas that forces the batsmen to draw forward, more often than not, he gets success.
This is possibly one of the greatest reasons why, despite playing just twenty Tests, he already has a slew of records against his name. Since November 2016, Maharaj is the fastest bowler from South Africa to pick up 50 wickets (which he achieved in 12 Tests) since their re-admission into cricket. His persistence and temperament saw him scalp his career-best figures of nine for 225 in the game at Durban and he would be hoping to better it once the final battle ensues in the series.