Maharaj buries ghosts of centuries of South Africa's spinners

Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, Colombo July 20, 2018

If you are reading through the figures of past South African spin performances in Sri Lanka, you have strayed into the genre of crushing, despairing tragedy.

Take Imran Tahir at this very venue - the SSC - in 2014. While Rangana Herath took nine wickets and Dilruwan Perera eight, Tahir's takings for the match were 3 for 197. Fittingly, while South Africa were stalling for time in the closing stages of that draw, Tahir had even produced a moment of Shakespearean melodrama, when supposedly struck by a full-on, full-body cramp, he lay motionless on his back at the non-strikers' end, eyes closed, as if awaiting removal on a stretcher, or a coffin.

There was also Nicky Boje's 0 for 221 at the SSC in 2006 - the second-worst wicketless innings figures in history - as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara produced the highlight of their great bromance: that world-record 624-run stand. Legend goes, that if you make your way out onto the SSC pitch late at night now and say Boje's name three times, a bone-chilling Boje howl fills ground, while the spectre of Jayawardene spanks him to the backward-point boundary for the billionth time.

So go the majority of entries in the file entitled "Saffer spin in Sri Lanka": the bowler tossing the ball up bravely, delighting briefly in the revolutions he has put on the ball, soaring inwardly at how it will surely spit when it pitches in the rough, the batsman then slinking out of his crease to crash it on the full past cover, while the captain shoots pained looks to his quicks, begging them to come back into the attack, who cares if they have not had a proper break.

No matter how partisan a Sri Lanka fan you are, you have at some point watched a South Africa spinner operate on the island, and wondered how there could possibly be a benevolent god when so much suffering exists.

So the events of the last half hour of day one at the SSC, was in many ways a breakthrough of some magnitude. The new ball became due at 80 overs, and astoundingly, a South Africa captain declined to take it, reasoning that his spinner was making enough of a weapon of the old ball, and that his trio of mightily strapping quicks would just have to continue languishing in the outfield, second-class citizens in the bowling attack maybe for the first time in their careers. Even when the new ball was taken in the 84th over, it was the slight, guileful Keshav Maharaj who got first use, a staggering turn of events for a team that just that morning, had had so little trust in their slow-bowling stocks, that they picked only one specialist spinner for a track which could happily accommodate half a dozen.

Maharaj shifted South Africa's spin paradigm at the SSC because he bowled as if he understood his craft, and how it may be best applied to these conditions. He knew that ripping spin off the track was good and all, but that it was the straighter ones in between that would make his bowling go nuclear. He knew that drifting his deliveries into the batsman could yield rewards, but so could the flatter, skiddier balls, that stayed the course and flirted with that outside edge.

Most of all, he seemed to understand that to to bowl spin in Sri Lanka is to tease a batsman, and to invite, as if to a sumptuous dinner, only to jam a fork into his opponent's eye, then whip off the table cloth and bundle him up in it. All day long, Maharaj plied the batsmen with loopy deliveries, his bowling vitally slower than it had been in the first innings in Galle. Right through his epic 32-over effort, he dared batsmen: drive me, sweep me, come down the track.

Kusal Mendis, no mean player of slow bowling, was undone when he took on one of these dares, playing his trusty sweep only to top-edge a ball into the infield; Maharaj turning Mendis' strength against him - a judo move. Later, Angelo Mathews was removed more clasically, the ball curving gracefully in, dipping, gripping, seeking out the edge, and then Faf du Plessis' hands at slip.

"I'd like to think I beat some of the batsmen in the air, with the ball dipping on them," Maharaj said after the day, sitting on outstanding figures of 8 for 116. That certainly seemed to be the case with the delivery that got rid of Dhananjaya de Silva, who batting on 60, played down the wrong line, perhaps expecting the ball to pitch a little bit closer to him.

It is still early in Maharaj's career, but he has the look and the figures, of a proper, world-class spinner, about him. He is tenacious - uncowed on Friday by a scoreline of 112 for 0, with Sri Lanka looking like they would go on to mount the kind of mammoth total that had tormented previous generations of South Africa spinnners. Twenty-one Tests in, he has performed creditably at home, in England, New Zealand and now Sri Lanka - an average of over 40 in two Tests in Australia the only minor gash on his record. On his very first tour in Asia, he has now achieved that very rare thing for a South Africa spinner: taking wickets by the handful when the vaunted quicks on your team have proved ineffective.

Whether Maharaj has delivered his team to a major advantage is uncertain. This track seems so dry, players should not be allowed to even sneeze in its vicinity, let alone run on the pitch. And in Galle, South Africa's batsmen had surrendered when one of Sri Lanka's own spinners had so much as thought about them.

But on Friday, Maharaj ensured that he did not add to South Africa's catalogue of pain, in Sri Lanka. If this still turns out to be a tragedy, he will at least have been the tragic hero.

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