India vs South Africa: From Maharaj to commoner

NEW DELHI : After a wicketless day during South Africa’s tour of Sri Lanka last year, then Protea spin bowling coach Claude Henderson woke up to a midnight thud on his door. He opened, groggy-eyed, only to see Keshav Maharaj bowling to the team video analyst in the hotel corridor. One of his deliveries had slipped out of the fingers and banged his door.

South Africa’s figurehead spinner, some reckon he’s the best to have emerged from the country since reintegration, had endured a torrid wicketless day on what was a typical turner and he couldn’t sleep. Seeing the coach, he posed him an existential query which several, even more famous spin-bowling predecessors have wondered: “Why can’t I get wickets in conditions that I’m supposed to get wickets?”

After all, before his first exposure to Asian conditions, he had wreaked havoc, among the least spinner-friendly climes, Dunedin and Wellington, and had left Australia and England with his reputation enhanced, a four-for at Lord’s, a three-for at Perth, three apiece in two innings in Nottingham. But here, in the subcontinent, he was, cutting a forlorn, flaccid figure.

The coach had no answers, he merely told him to catch some sleep and shut the door, though inwardly he felt quite chuffed at his ward’s alacrity. Later, he told in a press conference: “That was the night I saw a fire raging him in.” That fire raged on and consumed 16 wickets in his next three outings, including a best of 9/129, the best by any South African. Typically, he played down the record and offered a disclaimer: “I think I’m still a beginner, and have to perform consistently here to say that I have cracked the code (of bowling in Asia). Maybe, India next year.”

Keshav Maharaj attempts to catch the ball during the first day of the first cricket test match against India in Visakhapatnam.

Those words seemed prophetic, as he endured a difficult Test in Vizag, where he resembled a worn-out imitation of the resurgent spinner he was in Sri Lanka, especially in the first innings.

As much as the hideous figures of 5 wickets for 318 runs, bleeding 5.86 runs in the second innings, on the fourth day, where the spinners are expected at least to stem the run-flow, the benevolence of his bowling is what would rankle him. Though there were sporadic instances of that raging fire within him blazing, like the Rohit Sharma dismissal in the first innings, one of the few instances he combined flight, drift and bite off the surface, he was more often bland and unimaginative, as if being the lead spinner was an immovable burden.

So much so that his mind seemed as cluttered as his action. He seemed like just lumbering in and bowling—he wasn’t getting any body into his action, which naturally hampered the pivot that’s fundamental to a finger spinner’s action. This meant he was hardily purchasing any turn, he is not a massive turner, but here he wasn’t getting any whatsoever. His arms weren’t coming through freely either—the action thus seemed hindered at the point of release. He wasn’t getting drift either.

While bowling faster on a slow turning surface could be beneficial if he can also make the ball turn, as had Nathan Lyon when he toured here last time, here he was merely looking to push the ball in, relying on just his fingers. Relying, primarily, on over-spin.

Battle-hardened spinners would say just one facet of spin-bowling can’t guarantee foolproof success. Overspin, for instance, could be highly beneficial on bouncier surfaces, like the one in Mumbai in 2012 when Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann tied a famed batting firm in knots. But those are exceptions than a thumb rule.

It’s an instinct rather—looking for overspin induced extra bounce. Even Lyon in his first tour to India in 2013 erred, but in his latest trip, he was a much rounded-bowler.

He developed the ability to bowl faster – more than half of his deliveries in that series were above 88km/h, where less than a quarter used to be – but, critically, he did not lose loop or dip when he sped up, which made him difficult to nullify