THEY SAID it was going to be all about the respective pace attacks, but the first day of the South Africa-Australia Test series provided evidence that spin bowling will have a big part to play, writes RON REED:
STEVE SMITH, the modern-day Bradman, is no bowler’s bunny, of course. But little-known South African spin bowler Keshav Maharaj has given the Australian Test captain something to think about.
When he made his belated Test debut in Perth last summer, the left-arm finger spinner immediately trapped Smith lbw for a fourth-ball duck, later adding the scalps of Adam Voges and Mitchell Starc to finish with an impressive 3-56. He played the following Test in Hobart but because Australia twice collapsed for 85 and 161 to the formidable Proteas pace attack, he bowled only seven overs and was virtually a spectator.
Now, 16 months later he has resumed the battle with Smith and his team, again with highly encouraging results. On day one of the first Test, he overshadowed the pace bowlers, with the possible exception of evergreen veteran Vernon Philander, by again dismissing Smith, along with another key wicket in Shaun Marsh as Australia clawed their way to 5-225.
On an unusually placid track on his home ground in Durban, Maharaj, 28, did the bulk of the bowling, coming on as early as the 11th over and delivering 24 challenging overs for 2-69, with the three pace bowlers – one fewer than they normally use — restricted to 16 or 17 overs each.
Maharaj, who started life as a fast bowler himself before experimenting with spin in the nets one day and discovering he was better at it, is playing his 17th Test and now has 59 wickets at 27.05, with three bags of five – a very handy contribution to a team that has reputation of relying heavily on one of the world’s most fearsome pace attacks. He is also a useful batsman, having scored two first-class centuries.
In this innings, he didn’t take long to make the alarm bells start ringing. His first delivery gripped and turned and resulted in a confident lbw shout against David Warner, which was turned down – correctly, according to the replays.
He continued to get more turn than even he – a local – expected, and he kept the scoring well in check while the speedsters operated from the other end. Smith, in particular, had trouble getting him away, with the last 10 of his eventual 56 runs taking 54 balls, 20 of which were delivered by Maharaj.
Eventually Smith got a thin edge trying to cut a ball of perfect length, the chance bouncing off wicketkeeper Quinton de Kok’s gloves to AB de Villiers at slip. He followed up by getting Marsh in similar fashion – also caught by de Villiers at slip, although without the keeper helping it along – from a ball that drifted and bounced.
What’s his secret? He doesn’t have one, he says – only discipline.
“You don’t go out trying for wickets,” he said. “Kingsmead (Durban) is a wicket where if you stop the scoring something will happen. I don’t have many variations so I have to rely on consistency to outsmart the batsman.”
The Australians were impressed. “I thought he controlled it well from one end,” Warner said. “We know that when the ball is shifting you’ve always got to speak to the spinners that they are holding the ball the right way and keeping one side dry and obviously that didn’t affect the way he bowled. It can affect some spinners.
“I thought he held up one end very well and they slowed our scoring down with the fast bowlers at the other end.”
Australia’s champion off-spinner Nathan Lyon watched all this as a spectator, not yet having been required to bat, but he would have been energised by his counterpart’s success, and by the general feeling that spin will play a big role in this match.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.