Around tea-time on the second day of the second Test, the wheels were coming off for South Africa: Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja were taking their bowling attack to the cleaners, and such were the levels of despair and dismay that Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada were seemingly ready to trade blows in the open, with captain Faf du Plessis needing to separate the infuriated duo.
Around tea-time on the third day of the second Test, the Proteas stared at a similar predicament: when du Plessis was dismissed, the scoreboard read 162/8, with the visitors trailing India’s gigantic first innings total of 601/5 (declared) by a massive 439 runs, and the hosts looking to set to wrap up an early finish on Sunday.
That’s when Keshav Maharaj walked out to the middle.
Maharaj, for a while now, has been South Africa’s premier spinner in Test cricket. An average of 30.22 coming into the Pune Test may not read extravagantly, but consider he plays half his games as the sole spinner on seaming – read uncomplimentary – tracks at home, it’s hardly a bad figure. Then you look at his strike rate – 55.4 – and how is this for comparison: the same figure for India’s destructive spin twins, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, prior to the Pune Test, reads 53.6 and 59.8, respectively.
This particular series, now halfway through, however, qualifies as a bit of a disaster for the slow left-armer from Durban. In three innings of tremendous toil and dismissive submission, Maharaj has turned into fodder for the domineering Indian batsmen – he has a mere six wickets to his name, each coming for the cost of more than 85 runs, scored at more than four per over. Maharaj has needed more than 21 overs per breakthrough, having touched the marathon mark of 50 overs in the first innings of both Tests, to have a severe tally of 127 overs bowled – that’s more than 35% of the total bowling done by the Proteas so far.
The discomfort in his right shoulder has been apparent in Pune, and he would be seen clutching at it in pain more than once today.
In light of what he did do at the MCA Stadium on Saturday, it is important to shed light on his batting credentials at the highest level – and there hasn’t been much to mention, without meaning any disrespect.
Maharaj had batted on 40 occasions for South Africa before he came out to replace his skipper on Day 3 at Pune; only five times had he done so much as touch 30 (while never having reached the mark of 50), and on only two of those 40 instances had he even stayed on for as long as 50 balls. Even on those two occasions, he had fallen on the 54th and 51st deliveries he faced, respectively.
He does have two first-class centuries to his credit, but an average barely 20 over the course of 124 matches tells you that there isn’t a huge deal to write home about for the 29-year-old.
Also bear in mind the wretchedness of South African batting displays on this land in the recent past. In their last six Tests in India – four during the horror that was 2015, two so far this time around – Proteas batsmen have bettered an individual score of 75 all of thrice. That’s right: three scores of 75+ out of 110 individual innings.
Now, let’s look at what Keshav Maharaj did on the third afternoon at Pune’s MCA Stadium.
Coming at the stage he did – 162 for 8, in the middle of the day, in the 59th over – there were a fair amount of challenges he was set to face even if he lasted, say, half an hour – challenges that most of his higher-profiled and higher-pedigreed teammates have come undone in front of the double-trouble of Messrs Ashwin and Jadeja, the tail-swing and sharp-shooting of Mohammed Shami, and the additional reverse rejoinders of Umesh Yadav. If, miraculously, Maharaj were to last long enough to enforce the second new ball, the skills of Ishant Sharma would be added to this already fearsome-enough picture.
Take a look at the breakdown of how he stood up to these multiple threats – and for the hope of a better contest through what remains of this three-match series, here’s hoping the Proteas top-order has taken notes too:
Ashwin: Two runs off 17 balls with the old ball, 15 off 20 with the new ball; 17 off 37 in all
Jadeja: 20 off 22 with the old ball, 18 off 24 with the new ball; 38 off 46 in all
Shami: Five off 14 with the old ball, one off eight with the new ball; six off 22 in all
Yadav: Four off 13 with the old ball, one off two with the new ball; five off 15 in all
Ishant: Six off 12, all facing the new ball
That is what constituted Maharaj’s 132-ball 72: the fourth-highest individual score by a South African in their last 10 innings on Indian soil since 2015.
When long innings come accompanied by long partnerships (or a singular long partnership, in this case), some of the credit lies with the partner, too, and that’s where the South African camp can also doff its collective hat in the direction of Vernon Philander, who grinded out his unbeaten 44 from 192 balls – only one individual innings from the touring party so far has lasted longer in terms of deliveries (Dean Elgar’s first innings 160 at Vizag, which came off 287 balls).
Together, Maharaj and Philander also notched up a number that should put their more esteemed batting colleagues in further shame: by doing enough to endure 259 deliveries – 43.1 overs – the ninth-wicket pairing registered the longest stand for South Africa so far in this series, even bettering the 42 overs lasted by Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock in what was the only other show of real resolve and resilience from the visitors.
Despite the fight, the Test match – and as a result, the series – looks well beyond South Africa, who will have to bank on more than themselves to save this game; you know the ones with a religious bent of mind are already praying to the weather gods, calling on them to move from central Pune to its outskirts in Gahunje.
Even if their prayers do fail, and India do wrap up yet another series victory on home soil, du Plessis and Co desperately need to atone for their mistakes when they move eastwards to Ranchi next week. We are in the World Test Championship cycle now – a cycle where South Africa are yet to come into motion.
Maharaj may not have displayed any of his bowling might as of this juncture in the series; but that batting fight is a lesson his teammates could do well to learn from, if they wish to emerge out of the disastrous abyss that has been the year 2019 for South African cricket.
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