“The eyes of the world would have been on Dale Steyn, who is just a wicket away from becoming South Africa’s all-time wicket-taker. But the focus quickly shifted to Maharaj, who began to turn things around in South Africa’s favour after they were wicketless in the first session”
After taking a drubbing in the first Test at Galle, South Africa needed a good performance at Colombo. They will be pleased with their performance at stumps on Day One, restricting Sri Lanka to 277-9. Keshav Maharaj led the attack from the front, picking up 8 wickets, which are his best First-Class figures. Maharaj managed to get a great purchase from the wickets on the very first day. He bowled long spells, being the only spinner in the XI and did not let his side down. Sri Lanka have three spinners in their team and would feel that anything over 300 in the first innings might be a good score to have on the board. However, we cannot take anything away from the South African spinner.
Danushka Gunathilaka and Dimuth Karunaratne got Sri Lanka off to a good start. But Maharaj came into his own and started picking up wickets in quick succession and before we knew it, he had picked up 4 wickets within 20 overs after lunch. Faf du Plessis went for the kill. He had many fielders surrounding the batsmen and created pressure. He had fielders at slip, fielders at bat-pad and also fielders for the sweep, strategically placed. All of them came in handy for South Africa as they look back on their day’s efforts with great pride.
The fast bowlers at the other end kept things reasonably tight. Kagiso Rabada bowled well and was rewarded for with a wicket for his efforts. However, Maharaj could not do any wrong today. Even ordinary deliveries were fetching him wickets. But the turn and bounce Maharaj generated out of the wickets was too much to handle for most Sri Lankan batsmen. Not known to be a great turner of the ball, Maharaj looked a different bowler with the conditions assisting him.
The eyes of the world would have been on Dale Steyn, who is just a wicket away from becoming South Africa’s all-time wicket-taker. But the focus quickly shifted to Maharaj, who began to turn things around in South Africa’s favour after they were wicketless in the first session. Du Plessis’ strategy was simple – use the fast bowlers in short bursts, while Maharaj continues from one end.
A spinner or any bowler for that matter needs to get into the rhythm. After a spell or two, one can sense that it is not going to be your day. If the captain has enough faith in you, he will throw you a long rope and assure you that he does not mind leaking runs as long as the bowler strikes. Being the lone spinner, Maharaj would have known that he had to take the bulk of the responsibility. Out of the 86 overs bowled on Day One, Sri Lanka faced 35 overs of spin, Maharaj bowled 32 of them. The South African batsmen will surely face many more overs in a day from spinners. They will look to negotiate them much better than they did at Galle.
Looking at Maharaj, one perhaps feels that South Africa missed a trick by not playing Tabraiz Shamsi in this match. But if you look at his performance at Galle – A pitch which was much more favourable for spinners, Shamsi managed just 5 wickets from 36.4 overs. His performance in that match did not make a case for him get a place in the second Test. But, the biggest surprise was South Africa dropping Vernon Philander. Philander along with some useful overs with the ball, could have been a handy batsman too. His inclusion would have added to South Africa’s depth further.
Maharaj made his Test debut in November 2016 against Australia at Perth. Since his debut, he has always looked the part. He has a simple action and lands the ball in the right areas, which trouble the batsmen. He already has 5 5-wicket hauls from 22 Tests. His 5-wicket hauls have come in testing conditions like Dunedin, Wellington and also Durban. This is his first tour of the subcontinent and has already made a huge impression. South Africa will hope Maharaj can continue his good run everywhere. For now, they will be relieved if his bowling efforts help them level the series.
Maharaj is also now on the brink of another record. If he manages to pick up the final Sri Lankan wicket on Day Two, he will be only the second South African bowler after Hugh Tayfield in 1957 to pick up 9 wickets in an innings. An elite company indeed. Regardless of the result, Maharaj will look back on this day with fond memories.