Johannesburg - Keshav Maharaj, who was named in the Proteas squad to tour Australia, remembers the moment he went from being a player with potential to becoming a pretty good one.
Having been too overweight and unfit to make the SA Under-19 squad for the 2008 World Cup, that lazy attitude had seen the left-arm spinner graduate to nothing more than a bit-part player at the Dolphins.
Then came his stint during South Africa’s winter at Cuckfield in the Sussex Premier League three years ago: “I wasn’t as fit as I should have been, so I was in and out of the team. But when I turned 23 and went to Cuckfield, I turned my life around. I lost weight and worked on my fitness,” says Maharaj.
The new approach paid dividends and Morne van Wyk, his captain at the Dolphins, describes him as a spinner with “great control and a great work rate” and a player who has been a big performer for his team over the past two seasons.
For his part, Maharaj reckons simplicity has been key to unlocking his potential: “I’ve just focused on helping the Dolphins win games by working on my consistency and basically hitting my lengths.”
The result is two 10-fers in the last couple of seasons - the latest being his career best figures of 13/157 in the Dolphins’ opening Sunfoil Series defeat of the Warriors by an innings and 70 runs. Twelve of those wickets were snatched the day after he was told he was going to be in the Proteas’ Test squad.
Despite having made his first-class debut 10 seasons ago, the former Northwood Boys High pupil’s selection is probably something of a surprise to the average cricket fan, who would have expected Dane Piedt or Simon Harmer to continue trying to make an indelible impression as the other spinner on tour alongside left-arm chinaman Tabraiz Shamsi.
But in the sport’s inner circle, the selection had been two seasons in the making.
“There had been talks for me to keep it up with the bowling,” he says. “But I didn’t let it go to my head because I just wanted to help the Dolphins win games. It did add a spring to my step to know I’d been selected [against the Warriors].”
Former Proteas spinner Paul Harris is another veteran who wasn’t surprised by the selection of Maharaj: “He deserves it. He’s done well for at least two seasons.
"He’s a consistent bowler who doesn’t bowl many bad balls. You know what you’re going to get with him in the first innings, and, in the second innings, he can come into his own by attacking if there’s a bit of rough to work with.”
The selection of two more new spinners to make their debut on the Australia tour has raised the question of whether South Africa, a country that has mostly never used spinners to hold up one end while they rotated their pacemen on the other, is going through something of a slow bowling boom.
SA Under-19 coach Lawrence Mahatlane, who warns that Maharaj is a tough competitor, says it’s a combination of a few things.
“Nobody’s picked up the spin bowling role by the scruff of the neck and made it his own, which means the selectors have had to cast their net wide,” he says.
“Also, conditions of the wickets and captains’ understanding of how to use spinners have helped development of spinners. Credit must also go to [Cricket SA] for doing something about improving spin with its initiative of taking some of the spinners to camps in India.”
But he has a caveat: “It’s all exciting, but you have to ask if the batsmen aren’t good enough at playing spin, or are the spinners getting better?”
Harris agrees with Mahatlane’s assertion about helpful wickets and more in-tune captains, adding another reason: “The young guys coming through actually want to be spinners because they’ve got guys to look up to them, unlike in the past when everyone wanted to be Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Dale Steyn.”
Maharaj, who leaves for Australia with the Proteas on Sunday, says the spin fraternity is a particularly chummy one in that they all wish each other well:
“Shamsi and I are good friends from having bowled well together when he was at the Dolphins. Whether he plays or I play doesn’t matter, as long as a spinner is playing. It’s the same around the country.”