Cape Town – Keshav Maharaj’s maiden home Test match for
South Africa against Sri Lanka at St George’s Park from Boxing Day should tell
us a lot more about his long-term potential for a regular place in the side.
The willowy left-arm spinner, almost certain to play in the
opening contest in Port Elizabeth -- unless there is highly unlikely,
justifiable reason for a four-pronged Proteas pace attack – will be in the
slightly strange position of being a “recall” despite doing all that could have
been asked of him in the first two Tests in Australia recently and then being
demoted for the dead-rubber encounter at Adelaide Oval.
Instead the team’s brains trust took the opportunity, in a
slightly less pressured situation with the series already in the bag, to blood
the less orthodox Tabraiz Shamsi in the surrendered final clash.
But with the left-arm chinaman bowler failing to entirely
convince there, he has been ditched altogether for the first two Tests (PE and
Cape Town) of the Sri Lankan series, clearing the way for Maharaj to probably
play another brace of matches, at least, at this level.
The relative rollercoaster ride experienced over a short
period Down Under by both Maharaj and Shamsi, only serves to remind starkly
that a permanent solution remains largely elusive to the Proteas’ main spinning
berth in five-day combat.
Indeed, if you cast your mind a little further back to the
short home series against New Zealand in August, a certain Dane Piedt remained
the incumbent at that point, although he did not get to bowl in the
weather-ravaged Durban Test and then lost his place due to an erratic personal
showing in the Centurion series-clincher.
The little off-spinner has had a seriously forgettable
summer subsequently, averaging a bloated 63.18 (11 wickets) from five Sunfoil
Series matches for the Cobras, and then being loaned out to the Titans for T20
After seven Tests, which had included that heartening debut
match haul of 8/152 against Zimbabwe at Harare in mid-2014, it can pretty
safely be said that further appearances at the premier level for his country in
the immediate future are unlikely at this point.
Focusing on the St George’s Park venue of the looming first
Test, it is also educative to note that it is the place where Imran Tahir, so
enduringly forceful a factor at limited-overs level, played his last home Test
for the Proteas.
The demonstrative leg-spinner picked up 3/108 in the West
Indies’ first innings of the significantly rain-affected stalemate in late
December 2014, although he travelled at above four runs to the over and it was
really the beginning of the end of his role for South Africa in the extended
format; he did play later in the ill-fated series in India.
At a ripe old 37 – he clicks over to 38 in March – Tahir is
also surplus to Test requirements now after 20 appearances in which he averaged
a damaging touch over 40 despite fitful brilliance.
So the focus falls fairly squarely once more on Maharaj, 26,
to convince long-suffering spin-watchers in this country that he is the man to
grab the Test baton and run purposefully with it.
At least the portents from Australia are healthy: you can
hardly judge him on the second Test there, as he got a miserly seven overs in soggy
Hobart where seam reigned supreme, but on earlier debut at the WACA he bowled
with an agreeable combination of wiles, control and sound temperament.
Maharaj, who had earned a fairly sudden elevation to the
Test scene after little hyping of his credentials in the lead-up to the Oz
trek, didn’t look nearly as callow as he obviously still is beneath the
sparkling Perth sun, showing endurance and tenacity with his economy rate a
particularly pleasing feature of each Aussie innings in the 177-run SA triumph.
He did get in the wickets column four times too – three in
the first knock, one in the second – although thus far he has only snared one
specialist batsman in his infant Test career, the Baggy Greens’ captain Steve
Smith for a duck in his first turn at the crease.
So it’s an additional reason for reminding that the jury is
still out on his future security in the Proteas side, especially given the
extra pressures associated with them so often entering Tests with only four
Being a breezy tail-end batsman with some crisp and
audacious strokes in his repertoire is a help to his cause, yet really little
more than a bonus: his primary job will be to prove that he warrants a berth
based on his core trade and in that respect St George’s Park certainly isn’t
the worst place from a conditions point of view for him to kick off his
home-based Test career.
That said, his expected direct rival as main spinner there,
Sri Lanka’s stocky fellow left-armer Rangana Herath, boasts immeasurably
greater experience at this level, with his 75 caps and 351 wickets at 27.97.
Herath also comes off a riotously successful short series in
Zimbabwe, where he bagged 19 wickets over the course of the two contests
against the minnows.
It was interesting hearing Robin Peterson, the just-retired
former Proteas left-arm spinner, say in a television interview this week that Maharaj
was a “fighter”, while qualifying his views by saying that the Dolphins player
had much yet to learn.
That education will be under harsh scrutiny again in Port
Elizabeth from Boxing Day, given the unsettled history of South African Test
spinners since the retirement of that metronomic but under-appreciated
pressure-builder Paul Harris in 2011 …
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