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Cricket news - To dominate, Maharaj needs to be a sight more seen
Before the start of the first Test between South Africa and Sri Lanka in Durban, which will forever be remembered for Kusal Perera's logic-defying 153 not-out, Proteas spinner Keshav Maharaj said that his side would look to dominate the tourists.
For the most part they did. If this were a boxing fight, the Proteas would have won just about every round only for a wild haymaker to knock them out at the end of the bout.
But let's somehow ignore Perera's epochal innings and instead focus on that word that Maharaj used. Dominate - to have power or influence over another being. In South African cricket, a land of deep voices, flexed biceps and broad shoulders, that means one thing and one thing only: aggressive fast bowling.
With Ottis Gibson in charge, this philosophy has been further entrenched and as long as the big West Indian is steering the ship, sub-continental batsmen will have to square up against a four-pronged arsenal of the most devastating collection of quick men on the planet.
But what if you have a spinner in the side as talented and skilful as Keshav Maharaj? A man not only in the form of his life - red-ball exploits late last year included a nine-wicket haul against Sri Lanka as well as figures of 7 for 37 as Lancashire bundled out Somerset for 77 - but one who has been earmarked as the best South African to ever twirl a cricket ball.
Common sense dictates his inclusion. Of all the world's spinners over the last two years, only Nathan Lyon (115), Ravichandran Ashwin (88) and Dilruwan Perera (86) have more Test wickets than Maharaj's 82. With a wicket every 50.9 balls he has a better strike-rate than the three above him and with an average of 27.39 is able to exert control on the game, to dominate it, if you will.
Which brings us back to his place in the team and his comments before the Test at Kingsmead.
"A lot of people have misconstrued what I meant by domination," Maharaj told Cricbuzz. "As a team we want to dominate. Yes in our conditions that usually means through fast bowling but I can still dominate. My lines and lengths, my flight, my control, my consistent areas; these are things that can help me get on top of a batsman and force him to make a mistake. That is domination in my view."
In order for a finger spinner to dominate in the manner in which Maharaj outlines, he needs two things; a large enough total offered up by his batsmen and enough overs to settle into a rhythm. South Africa's decision to field four seamers alongside Maharaj hinders his chances of getting both of these necessities.
For one, it means the Proteas went into the Kingsmead clash a batsman light. Vernon Philander is no mug with the bat and Maharaj himself is a better batsman than his numbers suggest but neither are good enough to bat at 7 in a Test side aiming to be number one in the world (more on that later). The top order is woefully short of runs since the retirement of AB de Villiers at the end of the home series against Australia, but the balance doesn't seem right with Quinton de Kock walking in at 6. The swashbuckling keeper is more than capable of occupying that position, but he is far more effective at 7.
In the first innings in Durban, Maharaj bowled three overs out of the 59 that South Africa sent down. He bowled two as the light faded on day 1 and just the one before lunch the next day. But with the quicks shooting out Sri Lanka for 191, his absence was hardly noticed.
In the second dig he played a more prominent role, loping towards the wicket in four spells - a single over before lunch on day three, three before the close of play, six overs the next day and one lengthier spell of 10 later on - for a combined 20 overs. It is no surprise that his three wickets came during that last stint as he came the closest to securing victory for his side.
He was also helped by the absence of Philander, who took no part in the final innings due to a hamstring strain. He will not be fit for the second Test in Port Elizabeth on Thursday, which may force Gibson and Faf du Plessis to better balance the side with either an extra batsman or the all-round abilities of Wiaan Mulder, who is still chasing his first Test cap.
"At the end of the day we're all striving for the same goal and I'm just happy to play my part," Maharaj said. "I'm not frustrated by any lack of game time. I'm just happy to step in whenever I'm needed."
That may sound good for those who like to believe that sports teams are like harmonious ant colonies with a single mind, but Proteas fans might prefer their leading spinner to show a bit more bite. Can you imagine Anil Kumble or Shane Warne speaking with the same comfort at being a bit-part player?
Never mind the platitudes, if Maharaj is going to play the lead role when needed then he must play every game. After the World Cup, Tests will be given the context they have desperately lacked as they form part of a broader Test Championship. South Africa's first assignment is away to India and Maharaj will need to feel like he is more than just another piece in the puzzle.
If indeed South Africa have realistic ambitions to be the best in the world again, winning on the sub-continent is imperative. Du Plessis can't bank on seeing one of his current fast bowlers repeating Steyn's 7 for 51 in Nagpur in 2010. Bowling performances like that are as rare as Perera's knock. As such, the confidence of his spinner is paramount.
"I'm feeling good and am loving my cricket," Maharaj said. "Faf is the best captain I've worked with and he knows how to get the best out of me. My role is clear and I have faith that I will be ready when called to take a more prominent role."
Without the backdrop of a Test Championship, Maharaj's career ran the risk of petering out into an unremarkable conclusion. Like the greatest snowboarder in Namibia or the best surfer in Switzerland, he has been largely seen as an unnecessary luxury at home. Someone who possessed an impressive skill but one that was only worth having in foreign conditions.
Now, through injury and the promise of Test silverware, his stock has risen. Kusal Perera humbling South Africa's muscular plan may well prove to be the catalyst for Maharaj's reintroduction to fans back home.
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