Growing up as a cricket fan in South Africa during the 1990s and early 2000s, there were plenty of idols to emulate during long spells or innings in the back yard or on the street.
If you stood with ball in hand, ready to steam in from a dizzying distance to unleash thunderbolts, you channelled your inner Alan Donald, Makhaya Ntini or Fanie de Villiers.
If you were wielding the willow, you were spoiled for choice and could pick and choose your heroic avatar depending on the situation. Aggression and flamboyance called for Lance Klusener or Herchelle Gibbs; patience and class required the embodiment of Gary Kirsten or Daryll Cullinan. If you were a whizz with both bat and ball you would declare to your mates that you were the second coming of Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock or “Big Mac” Brian McMillan.
Leaders among followers had Hansie Cronje and later Graeme Smith; wicketkeepers had Mark Boucher and Dave Richardson before him. Even energetic fielders could look to Jonty Rhodes and state with confidence that the South African game had room for them.
Youths with ambitions to tweak the ball as a Protea spinner were not as fortunate. South Africa’s most successful spin bowler since readmission in 1991 remains Paul Adams, whose unusual action was only seen for 45 Tests and alienated any slow bowler who opted for a more orthodox approach to the wicket.
That left Pat Symcox and Nicky Boje, decent cricketers and bolshie characters in their own right, but hardly superstars of the game. Considering opposition teams boasted names such as Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble and Saqlain Mushtaq, it is no wonder that young South African spinners were always seen as something foreign from the brisk pace, impressive stroke play and all round ability that defined the game in the Republic.
Which makes one wonder who exactly Keshav Maharaj must have looked to while honing his skills as a young left arm finger spinner. Whoever it was, that motivation has paid dividends as South African cricket has unearthed a rarity much more valuable than anything dug up in the gold and platinum mines that dot the countryside.
In just seven Tests, the 27 year has collected 26 wickets. Since the start of the year, he is the 9th most prolific wicket taker in the world with 18 scalps in just 4 matches. Of all the wicket takers with 10 scalps or more in 2017, only Ravindra Jadeja (19.74) and Kagiso Rabada (21.6) have a better average than his 21.94 per wicket.
His 2 five wicket hauls this year put him level with Jadeja, Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe, spinners who have enjoyed the advantage of bowling on turning dustbowls in India – something Maharaj has yet to do.
Maharaj has shown that he has the ability to take wickets, as his return of 15 at 19.93 in the recent three match series against New Zealand proves, but also that he is comfortable keeping things tight while the seamers rotate from the other end. This makes him far and away the most complete South African spinner going around.
He does this with control of flight. When he tosses the ball up to draw the batsman into a false stroke, he does so without any fear or apprehension. He backs his natural drift and dip to take advantage of a batsman looking to attack anything that is floated above the eye line.
During the recent New Zealand tour, which saw him top the wicket takers list with 15, he constantly beat right handed batsman who were dragged wide by the flight and drift but then beaten off the pitch.
He had even more joy against lefties who found out the hard way that a ball that goes on with the arm can be much more challenging than one that rips square. With England on the horizon, Alistair Cook, Keaton Jennings, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes should all be mindful that 53% of his wickets against the Kiwis were left handed batsman.
Maharaj also has the control that helps captains sleep better at night. Against Sri Lanka in South Africa, as well as in Australia and New Zealand, whenever Faf du Plessis needed to keep things tight he tossed the ball to his spinner and asked him to do the job.
Against the right handers, he has the ability to find a consistent wider line to a strong off side field. Against the southpaws, he keeps it tight, making them play at everything before luring them wider – a ploy that worked beautifully against Jeet Raval in particular.
“Control,” is what du Plessis said when asked what makes Maharaj so deadly. “That sums it up. He doesn’t bowl a lot of bad balls and if you look at the best spinners they don’t bowl a lot of bad balls. Keshav has brought that consistency.”
In an age where South Africa has had to choose a spinner that was either attacking – Imran Tahir – or defensive – Dane Piedt – they are spoiled with the introduction and development of Keshav Maharaj.
It is far too early in his career to state with any certainty how far he will go, and of course, he has yet to test himself on the subcontinent, but the early signs are overwhelmingly positive. And who knows; perhaps in a few years’ time, young spinners around the country will have a local hero to look up to, as a new name is added to the likes of Kallis, Rhodes and Ntini in mini Test matches at braais and on the streets of South Africa.
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