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The spinner South Africa have been searching for

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Keshav_Maharaj_South_Africa_CricketKeshav Maharaj isn't your everyday left-arm spinner. He isn't a Ravindra Jadeja who darts the ball into the right handers nor is he a Rangana Herath or a Steven O’Keefe who rely on turn and bounce combined with drift. He is more in the Daniel Vettori mould, constantly hitting the right channels and pestering the batsmen into a mistake.

The biggest weapon Maharaj has is his ability to land the ball in virtually the same area over and over and create subtle variations in pace. For instance, the delivery to dismiss Imrul Kayes in the second innings of the Potchefstroom Test match was 4.66% quicker than his normal delivery.

 

“He had the opportunity of rubbing shoulders with Anil Kumble and Kiran More when the Indian team was touring the South Africans. Kumble gave him some valuable advice regarding the pace of the bowl and asked him to concentrate on being somewhere close to the 90kmh mark to ensure he had control over the play,” Maharaj’s father, Athmanand Maharaj had said in an interview.

 

It is this kind of variation that the Dolphins spinner thrives on. He wasn't meant to be picked so soon in the South African Test squad. They had settled in on Dane Piedt as their primary spinner in Tests with Imran Tahir having an outside chance of making it into the squad for Australia a year ago.

But the selection panel under Linda Zondi sprung a surprise when they opted for two rookie spinners - Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi - for a tough tour Down Under.

“We were very excited. The moment when Cricket South Africa came asking for Keshav's passport in order to send him with the national team for the tour of Australia, we actually broke down. And to see him on television playing for the nation brought tears in our eyes and to be fair the call came in at the right time. He (Keshav) had worked really hard and deserved the opportunity to take a shot at the international level”, Athmanand Maharaj had said.

It was Athmanand Maharaj who pushed his son to try his hand at spin bowling. “During a coaching session one day, I gave him a bucket of balls and told him to try spinning the ball. After a few sessions, he adapted himself very well and we didn't stop him thereafter."

 

"When he became a little older, around the age of 12, he got an opportunity to bowl to the Pakistani and the Indian cricketers when they were on their tour of South Africa. He learnt a lot from that experience and the players too helped him a lot," he said.

 

Luckily, Maharaj's rise coincided with du Plessis’ elevation to Test skipper. The aggressive Protea captain prefers not to overload the team with a lot of pace bowlers and likes to have a spinner who can hold up one end and even attack if required.

Maharaj fitted this bill perfectly. What sets him apart from the likes of Paul Harris and Nicky Boje, who were pretty decent holding bowlers for the South African seamers, is his ability to switch between attacking bowling and defensive bowling. Maharaj’s discipline allows him to seamlessly switch modes and this has allowed him to reap huge returns on unfavorable surfaces.

Against Bangladesh in the first Test, Maharaj completed 50 Test wickets at an average of 26.12 and a strike rate of 53.8. His value is further emphasized by the fact that his economy rests at a miserly 2.90. Since his debut, only five bowlers have more wickets in Test cricket and this list includes four premier spinners of World cricket - Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Rangana Herath and Nathan Lyon.

 

Maharaj's strike rate is better than that of the likes of Ashwin and Jadeja, although he hasn't played a single match on surfaces that favour spin bowlers. That he has managed to do this in Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa is testimony to his wonderful skills as a spin bowler.

 

In the past year, South African pace bowlers have struggled with frequent injuries. Dale Steyn walked off at Perth last year on the first day of Maharaj's debut Test. But the talented young spinner more than made up for Steyn's loss with some outstanding bowling, returning with six wickets in the Test, including the vital scalp of Steven Smith.

In England, it was Philander who went down and Maharaj combined with Rabada to form a potent combination and destroyed England at Trent Bridge, where his wickets of Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow changed the course of the match.

Against Bangladesh last week, it was Morne Morkel who was out injured and once again the Dolphins spinner stepped up and delivered to return with figures of 4/25 in the second innings. He, alongside Kagiso Rabada, tested the Bangladesh batting on a pretty flat wicket and gave South Africa a crushing victory.

As he climbs up the ladder in the South African Test scene, one cannot help but think that the Proteas have unearthed quite a gem. Not since Hugh Tayfield have they had a Test match spinner of such quality. Given his composure and temperament, Maharaj might play a crucial role in the Indian series early next year.

 

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