Proteas spinner targets ‘ton-up’ club

Keshav Maharaj (AP)
Keshav Maharaj (AP)

Cape Town – It may just come to prove a good thing that Keshav Maharaj, South Africa’s first-choice Test spinner, was still a year short of international recognition when the Proteas had their appalling last tour of India in 2015.

Instead cares in that specialist department for the eventually bludgeoned visitors were largely the responsibility of Imran Tahir, much more renowned for his white-ball exploits, and Simon Harmer, now out of the picture on Kolpak terms in England.

Dane Piedt also featured in one of the four Tests, and there were part-time contributions on some controversial dustbowls from Dean Elgar and JP Duminy.

While it was mostly on the batting front that the Proteas were nastily spooked – they managed only one total above 200 in the entire series, surrendered 0-3 with one stalemate – the entire team took a long time to banish the scars from that trek.

Off-spinner Piedt may well feature again in frontline terms for the three-Test 2019 series in October, also the first for the Proteas in the ICC’s all-new World Test Championship.

He is among the personnel getting a reconnaissance opportunity a little earlier, as part of the SA ‘A’ party for four-day combat soon against their Indian counterparts.

But Maharaj, a more certain pick for the senior Proteas undertaking, will go as something a bit closer to a secret weapon, in some senses – and one of those not impeded psychologically by memories of “last time”.

Presently priming himself nicely with extended spells of bowling in the County Championship – on terms only recently extended, given his notable success – with Yorkshire, the 29-year-old will have a major role to play in the Proteas’ quest to at least be enormously more competitive in India than they were in 2015.

Maharaj picked up 10 wickets in his last completed four-day match, against Somerset in Leeds, and his ongoing deployment for a few more weeks will enable him to hit the ground running in India, a luxury some squad-mates won’t have as the tour comes so early in the new South African summer and cobwebs may take a while to clear.

He will also tackle his maiden Test on Indian soil – at Visakhapatnam from October 2 – mindful that in his last taste of Subcontinental conditions in the format, he bagged record-breaking first-innings figures of nine for 129 against Sri Lanka at Colombo in July 2018.

Since his debut for the Proteas against Australia at Perth in November 2016 (when he famously ripped out Baggy Greens captain Steve Smith leg before wicket for a first-knock duck), the lean, Durban-born competitor has consistently taken key wickets at Test level.

Should he prosper in the first Test against Virat Kohli’s formidable charges – or shortly thereafter – he will also shift into an elite South African “spinners’ club”.

Maharaj has 94 Test scalps, so only needs six more to join Hugh Tayfield (170), Paul Adams (134), Paul Harris (103) and Nicky Boje (100) in the ton-up category for the country.

Considering that they have come for Maharaj (from 25 Tests) at a praiseworthy average of 28.44, he currently lies second only to Tayfield (25.91) of the group on that front.

But he eclipses them all for strike rate (53), even if he is the least economical with a concession rate of 3.19 … though that is hardly shabby.

It will be a mighty challenge for the Proteas collectively in a few weeks’ time, but Maharaj just seems in an especially good space to come to light in a big way on terrain that has caused so much prior angst at times.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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