In the five years since Paul Harris retired, South Africa have tried out six frontline spinners (seven if you include JP Duminy - which I don’t). Imran Tahir was the great white hope, and flamed out at Adelaide. Robin Peterson was steady and little more, after four years out of the team.
Dane Piedt scythed through Zimbabwe, fought back from injury, then was discarded for being an off-spinner. Simon Harmer impressed across five Tests in 2015, then was dropped for the returning Piedt, and decamped for England, as Piedt may do himself.
Keshav Maharaj impressed on debut at Perth after Dale Steyn’s injury left South Africa shorthanded, then was barely used in the next Test, and dropped the one after that. Tabraiz Shamsi got one Test, included because his variations were harder to pick with the pink ball.
Now for some background.
South Africa have had only one truly great spinner, the leading off-spinner of the 50s, Hugh ‘Toey’ Tayfield. Paul Adams, Nicky Boje, and Paul Harris all took over a hundred Test wickets and played their roles in the late 90s, and through the 00s, but since the retirement of Harris, South Africa have struggled to stick with a spinner.
It’s interesting to note that all three of South Africa’s modern spin trio are left-arm spinners (two orthodox, one very unorthodox). Left-arm orthodox might be the best way tie up one end against the modern batsmen, which may what South Africa want out of their spinner most of the time.
Maharaj has cited Rangana Herath as his hero, which suggests he may not be a defensive spinner, just a patient one. He also spoke to Paul Harris before the series to suss out how to bowl in home Test matches. The key word there: patience.
Sri Lanka showed rather a lack of patience in playing him on the second day of the Newlands Test match. Without wanting to dismiss Maharaj’s bowling, which was admirably disciplined, and tactically astute, South Africa’s strangulation of Sri Lanka with their seamers left the batsmen desperate to score against the spinner.
Maharaj had to wait 21 overs of the innings to come on, and was given the tough, but potentially rewarding, job of bowling into the wind. His fourth ball was slog-swept for six by Kusal Mendis, but there was a hint of a smile on Maharaj’s face, a portent of things to come.
The next two balls were slow again, teasing Mendis, a hard hit cover drive for none, and a forward defence. The next time Kusal Mendis tried to slog-sweep him, the ball was marginally more off side, and a little quicker, and the resulting top edge was caught by JP Duminy. Subtle variation. Rangana would be proud.
From a spin bowler’s point of view he’d have enjoyed Mahraj’s first over after tea, with balls bowled as slow as 74kph and as fast as 84kph. Less subtle, but no less varied, the Sri Lankan batsmen could not settle against him.
It took 5.4 overs before he bowled his first bad ball, short and cut to the point boundary by Dhananjaya de Silva. He followed it up with a good length straight ball. Then last ball of the over, batsman having got two fours in the over, he drifted one into the pads of the charging de Silva, and straightened it enough to get the LBW.
It was only two wickets, but Mahraj picked up two crucial batsmen, and provided an invaluable foil to South Africa’s seamers, bowling eleven overs unchanged from his first ball until Sri Lanka were bowled out. Even though he didn’t get a wicket against them, he masterfully targeted the rough outside Tharanga and Herath’s off stump, some balls fizzing back at them and some going straight on.
Mahraj is about patience and changes of pace, and his backup for now Tabraiz Shamsi is of a different sort of bowler, all about variations and mystery, as is any left-arm wrist-spinner, with so few of them about. His debut in the pink ball Test at Adelaide didn’t got to plan, but after his fantastic domestic season that got him picked originally, he should be first in line to partner Maharaj should a second spinner be needed.
Maharaj and Shamsi may find their paths intertwined for some time to come. Born eleven days apart in 1990, they are be the two halves of South Africa’s new spin dichotomy, the new Boje and Adams if you like.
Maharaj will play as the holding spinner, waiting and picking his chances to strike and pick up useful wickets. Shamsi will get his chances on spinning pitches, in the subcontinent, maybe again with the pink ball (if his variations are actually that much more difficult to pick with it).
Dane Piedt may get another chance if he doesn’t take his trade to England. JP Duminy may take Maharaj’s place if the selectors decide they simply don’t care about spin. Imran Tahir may even get another recall in the subcontinent.
Keshav Maharaj is the man now, nobody can take that away from him… yet.