Keshav Maharaj won’t dominate the headlines after the Proteas’ resounding victory over England, but his value should not be overlooked, writes DANIEL GALLAN.
With 172 runs still required, England had little hope of securing an unlikely victory on an erratic strip at SuperSport Park. But they did have hope. Remarkably, unbelievably, a quiet tension had descended over the ground.
Four months ago Ben Stokes etched his name in cricketing lore by hitting an unbeaten 135 against Australia at Headingley to haul his side to a famous one-wicket Ashes win. Whispers of that epic knock had begun to circulate. He couldn’t do it again, could he?
He had just viciously swept Keshav Maharaj to send the ball screaming into the advertising boards away to deep square leg and followed that up with a disdainful inside-out lofted drive to the cover fence.
With Stokes and captain Joe Root peppering the perimeter with regularity, England were racing at close to five an over after the lunch interval. What began as whispers not to be taken seriously had suddenly morphed into real talk about another historic comeback for the ages.
But Maharaj is no part-timer. He has not claimed 101 Test wickets by chance. The 29-year-old, already making a claim to be South Africa’s best-ever spinner, had realised that a change of pace was required.
After landing one back of a length, Maharaj darted a fuller ball outside Stokes’ off-stump. The extra width on offer enticed a cut shot but the extra speed through the air had it skidding off the deck. Spinning from a footmark, the ball found the inside edge and clattered the off-stump via Stokes’ pad. Maharaj wheeled off in maniacal celebration after tearing a hole in the match.
Seven overs later the new ball was taken and 13 overs after that South Africa had won the match by 107 runs. It was a comprehensive triumph that now looks a formality, but until Maharaj’s intervention the game was one Stokes-laden session away from being a close-run thing.
Injuries and illness aside, England arrived for this first Test with the intention of blowing South Africa away with a full battery of pace and seam. Jofra Archer’s menace, Stuart Broad’s bounce, James Anderson’s skill, Sam Curran’s bustle and Stokes’ belligerence was a recipe Joe Root was hoping would yield fiery dividends.
South Africa, too, rolled in with the heavies and Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Anrich Nortje and all-rounder Dwaine Pretorius were always going to do the bulk of the heavy lifting on a deck famous for pace and bounce. But Du Plessis had something Root did not have.
As Maharaj has proved time and time again, a quality spinner still has a role to play on wickets more suited for seam bowling. A spinner that is able to both hold an end and carry a wicket taking threat means a captain can better control the tempo of the match, rotate his fast bowlers from the other end (thereby keeping them fresher for longer) and force the batters to rethink their approach.
Take Root’s introduction with the ball in South Africa’s first innings as an example. The Proteas were struggling at 118-5 after 40 overs with Quinton de Kock just getting under way on 20 and Dwaine Pretorius still new to the crease on 1. With Stokes battling illness, he was unable to bowl and the four seamers who had charged in all morning needed a breather.
Root’s first ball was a long hop and was rightly spanked backward of square by De Kock’s flashing blade. Two balls later, De Kock went after a floater and was lucky to see the ball land safely between mid-on and mid-off, but he had made his intentions known. Root’s part-timers would get no respect.
In his next over, Root saw the ball sail over cow corner and land on the embankment from a Pretorius hoik. Though he nearly got the wicket of De Kock – when an outside edge bounced a fraction short of Stokes’ mitts at first slip – Root’s four overs accounted for 26 runs. By the time he was done, South Africa had progressed to 170 with De Kock on 52 from 54 balls and Pretorius keeping pace on 21 from 25. Without a frontline tweaker, Root lost control of the match.
Speaking after the match, Du Plessis credited Maharaj’s contribution, particularly the game-changing dismissal of Stokes.
‘It was a massive wicket for us at that stage,’ Du Plessis said. ‘Stokes has proved that if he stays around he can win a game on his own.
‘Even though Kesh didn’t bowl as much as he’d have liked, the wickets he got for us [including the crucial scalp of opener Dom Sibley in the latter stages of day three] were huge.’
Credit must also go to the skipper who trusted his spinner despite the concession of several boundaries.
‘We at the back of the stumps had a lot of confidence in Kesh,’ Du Plessis said. ‘We kept saying in the second innings that he would get Stokes out. We just had a gut feeling and you have to stay true to that.’
The plan worked. With Stokes gone, England crumbled.
With chest-thumping alphas around him, South Africa’s quiet finger spinner brings balance to the Proteas’ force.