Keshav Maharaj stole the thunder from the pin up boys of South Africa’s bowling — the likes of Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada —to bag a career-best nine wickets in an innings and help his side bounce back in the second Test. Several new milestones were created by the 28-year-old left-arm spinner as he rattled the Sri Lankan batsmen with his nagging length and deceived them in the flight.
In a country that has not produced any world-class spinner since their readmission to international cricket in 1992, Maharaj’s 9 for 129 is currently the second-best by a South African bowler. Off-spinner Hugh Tayfield holds the record for the top bowling performance by a South African in Tests, having claimed 9 for 113 against England in 1957.
Maharaj sent down 32 overs on a humid and energy-sapping opening day in Colombo and admitted his body was sore after the marathon effort. “As much as you can tell yourself that you are not tired, the body does get sore. Obviously Faf (Faf de Plessis) saw I was tiring a bit and gave me a few overs’ break, and I came back. I did ask for the ball afterwards,’’said Maharaj savouring one of his best days of his international career. It did not help Maharaj that South Africa missed a trick by not playing Tabraiz Shamsi on a track that offered assistance to the low bowlers.
Despite the presence of a star-studded pace arsenal, the key to success for South Africa in Sri Lankan conditions would be the performance of their spinners. A disappointing showing in the first innings at Galle was a rude jolt for Maharaj, the senior-most spinner in the squad. The 28-year-old was playing his first Test match in the sub-continent and had missed out on the crucial practice game because of an illness. Inclement weather robbed him of net sessions before the Test match.
“I ended up bowling in the hotel corridor to the spin coach Claude Henderson to gain practice,’’ says Maharaj. It was far from ideal preparation and he ended up wicketless in the first innings. He would make a strong comeback, bagging four wickets in the second innings, but by then the hosts were dictating the terms in the match.
South Africa suffered an embarrassing defeat within three days of the Test match, which meant the number two-ranked Test side were clearly feeling the heat going into the second and the final Test of the series. “I did get a little bit of assistance off the wicket at SSC because here the ball skids on which means there were more chances of getting leg-before decisions and also the top-edge when the batsman sweeps. I’d like to think I also beat some of the batsmen in the air, with the ball dipping on them,’’ said the Durban-based spinner. Angelo Mathews was flummoxed by the flight, offering a catch in the slip, while Niroshan Dickwella fell while playing a sweep.
Making his Test debut in 2016 against Australia, Maharaj had taken on the mantle of South Africa’s frontline spinner from Imran Tahir. Coming into this Test match at Colombo, he had an impressive tally of 78 Test wickets in 21 Tests. Among South African spinners, only Tayfield had more wickets after playing 21 Tests, proof of his rapidly rising stock among the bowlers in the Proteas line-up.
Despite a spectacular start to his career, Maharaj known for his staunch spiritual leanings, remains very down to earth, a legacy of his humble background. His father Athmanand was a wicketkeeper who played for Natal’s second team. He had to battle racial discrimination in the apartheid era and worked hard to ensure a smoother journey to top flight cricket for his son. Young Keshav was a bright prospect in the school circuit and his father used his cricketing connections to ensure that his son could bowl to the batsmen of the visiting international sides.
The left-arm spinner made a huge impact in the 2014-15 domestic first-class season for Dolphins, finishing sixth in the wicket charts. Maharaj, 24 years of age back then, had worked on his fitness, shedding a few kilos, and was focussed on breaking into the national team. The rise continued with another impressive showing the following year, which meant he had stolen the march over the other spinners in contention for a place in the Test squad.
Tahir, Robin Peterson, Dane Piedt, Simon Harmer and Aaron Phangiso were jostling for the spinner’s slot in the South African squad, but Maharaj earned a berth for the tour of Australia in 2016. He went on to make his debut in Perth, where he had a modest return of four wickets but earned plaudits for his gritty batting display, scoring an unbeaten 41. The biggest achievement of his international career before the exploits in Colombo was his match winning six-wicket haul in Wellington against New Zealand, which cemented his place in the national side.
Despite his heroics at SSC, Maharaj is aware that his job is far from over and he will have to replicate the success once again in the second innings to draw level in the series. “Accolades mean a lot more when you can win a Test match, so hopefully in the second innings I can put in another performance and be on the winning end of it,’’ signed off Maharaj.