Why Proteas must get spinner firing

2019-02-15 20:21
Keshav Maharaj
Keshav Maharaj (AP)

Cape Town - Spluttering on certain cylinders, yet seemingly closing in on another home Test match kill, South Africa could do with Keshav Maharaj coming more significantly into his own at the back end of the Kingsmead clash with Sri Lanka.

There is a strong chance they will complete the first-Test victory job on Saturday's fourth day's play, with the tourists a fairly distant 221 runs short of their target of 304, and three wickets down.

So far, it has been a reasonably typical Proteas showing of late: often unconvincing at the crease, but with their remorseless pace arsenal emphatically hiding certain cracks in the collective.

But whatever happens in the remaining day (or possibly still two) in Durban, the second and final contest in Port Elizabeth from next Thursday will be the series fate-decider, and nobody needs reminding that spin could play a more pivotal role at St George's Park.

If that is the case, it is the 'Lankans who may just take better heart from it as their left-arm spinner, debutant Lasith Embuldeniya, is likely to be feeling rather more chipper about life right now than his South African frontline counterpart Maharaj.

On Friday, the 22-year-old rookie leapt to the fore with figures of five for 66 - he also bowled more overs, 26, than any visiting seamer - as the Proteas posted another pretty innocuous total of 259 in their second innings.

They owed a major debt of gratitude this time, after Quinton de Kock had monopolised their stuttering first knock and banked another half-century the second time around, to captain Faf du Plessis, whose mostly immaculate, calm 90 off 182 deliveries spared worse blushes.

Certainly if Du Plessis had failed, the underdog guests might be chasing an altogether less taxing requirement for a shock 1-0 lead that remains not entirely out of the question.

But with the Friendly City follow-up Test already lurking in minds given the compressed nature of this series, the Proteas could really do with Maharaj discovering something nearer his best form before Kingsmead hostilities come to an end.

The pitch is increasingly receptive to sharp turn at times and that characteristic should be even more noticeable on Saturday.

Yet despite that, the lean South African spinner somehow looks rusty - struggling especially with his line - and it is not being helped by his very economical use in the Test thus far.

Maharaj, occasionally backed up with even more fleeting mini-stints from part-time tweakers Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram ahead of bad-light disruption, has sent down only seven overs in total to this point, at a cost of 30 runs, and looks desperate for a long spell where he can find a semblance of consistent control and, by extension, begin applying genuine pressure.

There are no guarantees, given how the four-pronged pace onslaught continues to effect the key breakthroughs for the home nation, but Maharaj getting a more meaningful load and the opportunity to muster fresh confidence in what is left of this match could have an associated influence on fortunes a few days down the line in Port Elizabeth.

By all accounts, he is some way off his A-game and it is at least partly understandable: a good run of either Test or domestic first-class bowling has largely eluded him in recent weeks.

His was a fleeting presence in the previous Test series, the 3-0 whitewash of Pakistan, as he turned out at Centurion only and got a modest 14 overs of duty across the two innings, without reward in the wickets column.

Maharaj's last really marathon bowl, however, also didn't go quite to plan in the 4-Day Franchise Series: he sent down 56 overs for the Dolphins in the lone Cape Cobras innings on a Maritzburg Oval featherbed late last month and laboured to two wickets at a substantial cost of 217 runs.

While pace/seam bowlers accounted for 28 of 34 wickets (one run-out, too) to fall in the last Test match staged at St George's Park - when the Proteas beat Australia by six wickets last season - it is traditionally a venue where spinners are required to bowl a generous quota of the overs.

In the last domestic four-dayer there in mid-December, for example, Cobras off-spinner Dane Piedt bagged a career-best eight for 130 in the Warriors' second innings, so it clearly remains no place for consideration of an all-seam attack.

Maharaj needs an opportunity to regain his mojo quite swiftly ... it is something Du Plessis and the rest of the SA brains trust perhaps need to bear in mind as they aim to turn the screws at Kingsmead.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    sri lanka  |  proteas  |  keshav maharaj  |  cricket


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