As India’s gruelling tour of South Africa begins at Newlands in Capetown, all the focus will be on how they handle the South African pace attack. It will be a very tough job to counter the likes of Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander or even a Chris Morris as it has been the case on previous tours. However, the presence of a bowler like Keshav Maharaj in the South African squad means India can't breathe easy after negotiating the pace bowlers.
In fact, they will have to treat him with equal respect, considering the left-arm spinner's recent exploits. Maharaj has picked up 56 wickets in 14 Tests so far at an average of 25.03 and economy of 2.94. These include 20 wickets from five home Tests, for which the average further improves to 21.25.
But, Why should India worry? Playing spin is one of their strengths, right?
However, when we look at India’s past performances, we will see that they have sometimes struggled against spinners, even in non-spin friendly conditions, just because they have been over-confident and underrated those bowlers.
Take India’s duel with Moeen Ali during their tour of England in 2014 for example. He decimated the Indian batting single-handedly at Southampton with his spell of 6/67 by simply hitting the right channels and lengths, and not even spinning the ball much. He followed the same approach and troubled them further with another spell of 4/39 in Manchester.
Although, he hasn't been able to trouble the Indian batsmen since then, India’s failure during those couple of occasions suggest how they approach spin lightly in non-spin friendly conditions even though the art is way more than just spinning the ball.
While Moeen Ali was a part-timer, Maharaj is a specialist. India should be careful while dealing with him as he is quite a tricky customer. He knows what line and lengths to hit even when the ball doesn't spin. He has played all his Test matches so far in non-spin friendly conditions of Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa, and have been impressive.
The way he gives his deliveries proper flight and varies his pace from time to time is superb. He doesn't take long to adapt, and he finds his lengths pretty quickly.
Moreover, statistics show that he is a much better spinner than the ones that South Africa has got in recent times. All of Imran Tahir, JP Duminy, Nicky Boje, Paul Harris and even a Paul Adams have proved to be pretty average and sometimes ineffective for their team in home conditions.
Maharaj, on the other hand, has made a direct contribution to South Africa’s victories at home so far and his statistics read way better than the names mentioned above.
His home average of 21.25 trumps the numbers of Adams(33.52), Harris (34.06), Boje (51.40), Duminy (36.30) and Tahir (38.39).
Moreover, his strike rate of 40.1 is also far better as all those other spinnera had strike rates of over 60.
At home against India, only Paul Adams out of those five bowlers has done a decent job with nine wickets to his name in two matches at an average of 29.11 and strike rate of 52.8. While Boje has never picked up a wicket against India at home, Harris, Duminy and Tahir have dismal averages of 48.44, 49.00 and 58.00 respectively.
Statistics sum up how Maharaj fares better than all those spinners that South Africa have tried in the last two decades or so. It remains to be seen if he can keep his impressive record going against India who are traditionally strong players of spin. Although, the South African pacers will present a much bigger threat to the Indian batsmen, Maharaj’s spin-bowling skills would mean that they will have no time to breathe easy.