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Keshav Maharaj, a limited-overs asset in hiding

by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

South Africa’s new stand-in skipper Keshav Maharaj has the skills to deserve a long run in the limited-overs sides, argues Rohit Sankar.

In May 2020, with the captaincy debate heating up in South Africa after Faf du Plessis left the post in February, Keshav Maharaj put his hand up as a wildcard candidate, stating that captaining the Proteas has been his “dream”.

It wouldn’t have been too outrageous if Maharaj was given the mantle in the longest format of the game. After all, he had shot up to No.3 in the list of South African spinners with most Test wickets in a five-year span where he showed he could be more than just a holding spinner even in conditions conducive to pace bowling.

But Maharaj wasn’t just throwing his hat in the ring for the Test captaincy, stating that he had aspirations to captain the Proteas side across all three formats. For someone who had played just seven ODIs and was yet to debut in T20Is until then, that seemed like a touch far-fetched, if anything.

One year down the lane, Maharaj has played five more ODIs and is yet to debut in T20Is, but will lead the Proteas out for the second ODI against Sri Lanka after Temba Bavuma pulled out with a fractured thumb.

One check mark in his bucket list for sure, but Maharaj has been ticking several other boxes of late, which is enough to make us believe that the ascendency to captaincy, even if temporary, should see his chances in white-ball cricket go up. And rightly so.

In the first ODI against Sri Lanka, Maharaj was easily South Africa’s best bowler on show. In an economical 10-over spell, the left-arm spinner picked up two wickets — he had another dropped off his bowling — and conceded merely 30 runs, creating multiple chances and appeals in the process.

After 12 ODIs, his career economy rate is 4.77 in ODIs. Nothing much to take home there given the sample size, but his numbers, in particular the economy rate, are as impressive in all T20s (83 wickets at 28.8 and an economy of 6.6) and in List A cricket.

In the 2019/20 Momentum One Day Cup in South Africa, Maharaj captained the Dolphins franchise to the top of the tables — they were eventually declared title winners after the play-offs were canceled because of the pandemic — and was phenomenal with his bowling impact. The spinner took 16 wickets, the fourth-highest in the season, in the seven games at an average of 14.7 and an economy rate of 3.79 with two four-wicket hauls.

Earlier this year, Maharaj was once again instrumental in the Dolphins’ run to the finals of the CSA T20 Challenge, captaining the side with flair and leading from the front with his bowling. He was the highest wicket-taker among spinners with eight wickets in six games, but what stood out was his economy rate of 4.54.

South Africa’s spin culture has seen a not-so-subtle shift in recent times with Tabraiz Shamsi, the No.1 ranked ICC T20I bowler, taking over from Imran Tahir in the shorter formats and Maharaj thriving in the longest format. A slew of other spinners including George Linde and Bjorn Fortuin are also making a mark in the shortest format of the game.

Maharaj’s rise in the limited-overs formats could not have come at a more opportune time for the Proteas. Maharaj is a genuine contender to make it to the squad for the T20 World Cup in UAE next month while he, alongside Shamsi, could be the ideal spin attack for South Africa to groom for the 2023 ODI World Cup in India.

Shamsi and Maharaj are an interesting duo to have in the limited-overs setup. While Shamsi is an outright attacking spinner with his variations that any have found difficult to pick, Maharaj is more than a mere holding spinner, using subtle variations in his flight and pace to deceive batsmen in the air.

Maharaj’s skill is grossly underrated and often overshadowed by a menacing group of quicks around him. A clever spinner who reads the game really well, Maharaj is adept at switching between a defensive role and an attacking one, making him a flexible option as a spinner in any XI.

So dedicated is Maharaj to establishing himself in the Proteas setup that he has worked incredibly on his batting. His 28 runs off one Joe Root over last year is a Test record, but Maharaj is more than a mere slogger. He is also more than just a mere left-arm orthodox spinner.

With no specialist coaching until he entered the South African setup, Maharaj is just a dedicated spinner, learning on the job and honing his skills with relentless passion. His Test record speaks for itself, and it seems like just a matter of time before he becomes as impactful in limited-overs cricket. He isn’t waiting for the honours to come to him, though, because he is busy racing towards it, ticking boxes along the way.

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