Keshav Maharaj of South Africa reacts after bowling

Keshav Maharaj: "I wanted to make a name for myself in a country that's known for fast bowlers"

© Getty Images


Is South Africa's outlook on spin changing?

For years the country has been synonymous with seam bowling, but with the advent of Tahir, and now Maharaj, the tide might be turning

Jarrod Kimber  |  

Paul Adams never went beyond 32 - in Test average or age. At 31 he gave up cricket with the second most Test wickets by a South Africa spinner. Fellow left-arm wristspinner Brad Hogg played his last professional match at 46 years, 11 months and 17 days. Adams has just turned 43. "I retired in 2008," he says. "I should have regenerated myself and started playing T20 cricket. I just missed that."

When he was young, Robin Peterson bowled left-arm wristspin until a coach convinced him that bowling left-arm orthodox, to turn the ball away from right-handers, was the better option. "Shane Warne was actually my hero growing up," Peterson says. "When I saw him bowl, I wanted to do that, but in South Africa we didn't get it. There were a lot more fingerspinners and it was easier to coach them."

Paul Harris is known as one of the most defensive bowlers in modern history. He was the second most economical among those who bowled over 1000 overs in Tests during his career. He bowled dry, delivering his left-arm orthodox from over the wicket to right-handers. In first-class cricket for the two years before making the Test team, he took 110 wickets at 25.9. "They give you a role to do and you do it. Would I have liked to do more of an attacking role more often? Possibly."

Tabraiz Shamsi has 317 wickets at 26 in first-class cricket. He has played two Tests, 18 months apart. "It would've been nice to play a few more games closer together, to see what I'm capable of," he says. "It does make me a bit sad, but who knows, maybe there will be more opportunities further down the line."

With the scoreline 1-1 against England this year, the series moved to Port Elizabeth. Keshav Maharaj entered the Test with the third most wickets of any South African spinner and a first-class bowling average of 22 at St George's Park. Before the game his captain, Faf du Plessis, mused about leaving him out. Maharaj played and bowled a little more than 38% of the overs.

"I wanted to make a name for myself in a country that's known for fast bowlers," says Maharaj. "It's not every day a youngster says they wanna be the best spin bowler for South Africa, it's always, they want to be the fastest bowler or the best batter. So if I can create that awareness and mindset for youngsters through performance, I will be doing my job."

Maharaj doesn't play every game. Harris became an automaton. Peterson turned safe. Shamsi barely appeared. And Adams disappeared. The life of a South African spinner is tough.

It hasn't always been that way. You probably didn't see much of Hugh Tayfield. When he finished his career in 1960, he had taken 170 wickets at 25.91. Tayfield owns the best figures at the Wanderers, 9 for 113. (Yes, the wicket is known for fast, fast, bounce, bounce stuff.)

Before Tayfield there were the four legspinners of the apocalypse.

South Africa were an inferior team when they first began to play Tests. Despite a couple of solid players, they didn't look like troubling either Australia or England. That was before Bernard Bosanquet - an Englishman - invented the "bosie". Or as you know it, the googly or wrong'un.

Four-man army: Aubrey Faulkner (second from left, top row), Reggie Schwarz and Bert Vogler (middle row, second from left and second from right), and Gordon White (bottom row, middle) were key to South Africa winning their series against England in 1905-06

Four-man army: Aubrey Faulkner (second from left, top row), Reggie Schwarz and Bert Vogler (middle row, second from left and second from right), and Gordon White (bottom row, middle) were key to South Africa winning their series against England in 1905-06 © Getty Images

Reggie Schwarz began his career as a batsman, and he was selected in many teams alongside Bosanquet when the two played for Middlesex - including on a first-class tour to Philadelphia. Bosanquet taught Schwarz the wrong'un and he in turn passed the skills on to Aubrey Faulkner, Bert Vogler and Gordon White. All of them learnt the art of this incredible invention.

In 1905-06, England toured South Africa. In the first Test, South Africa won a nerve-wracking chase nine wickets down. Their legspinners took 14 wickets. South Africa won the series 4-1; their wristspinners combined for 43 wickets at 19. Schwarz took 18, Faulkner 14, Vogler nine, and White, who only bowled 11 overs, took two.

That series seems to be from a different world now. When asked why South Africa moved away from spin, Shaun Pollock points out how the country's cricket was almost entirely three-day when they were banned from internationals. "That doesn't help develop spin," he says.

There are four Test teams that have not had a spinner who has taken 200 wickets. Ireland, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and South Africa. New Zealand and West Indies - known as being ordinary at spin - both have spinners who have taken 300 or more. England have two with over 200. Australia, perhaps the closest to South Africa in terms of pitches, have Shane Warne, Nathan Lyon, Richie Benaud, Clarrie Grimmett and Stuart MacGill.

Since South Africa's readmission, spinners have averaged 39 when bowling in the country. Only New Zealand and Australia are worse, at about 40. And that's with Warne and Lyon - second and sixth most prolific all-time spin wicket-takers.

Australia produces spinners even with pitches that don't help, and South Africa doesn't. Shamsi suggests South African wickets, in fact, help more than Australian ones. "I feel in South Africa you can get a bit more bounce and most grounds give you some kind of spin," he says. Peterson notes that South African pitches are used more than Australian ones, and that helps spinners.

But the biggest difference is not exactly in the help that pitches give to spinners, as Harris says. "In Australia, the wickets are very good, the best wickets in the world to bat on. Whereas South African wickets are very difficult to bat on. The one thing worse than being a spinner in this country is being an opening batsman. The wickets do favour seam bowlers."

Australia is a great place to bat. This century only in the 34 Tests played in Pakistan has there been a higher average per wicket than Australia's 34. South Africa is the worst (if you don't count Ireland's one Test) at 29.3. Seam bowling is the difference. Quick bowlers average 33.5 in Australia; in South Africa, it's 28.91 - the lowest in the game.

These are vast differences. Harris' point cannot be dismissed. But Australian cricket truly believes in spin. That's not the case in South Africa, where a spinner is an optional extra.

"Nathan Lyon is a classic example," Peterson says. "He struggled at times, but Australia kept with him, and now he has nearly 400 Test wickets. There definitely is a lack of understanding of the art in South Africa."

If South African spinners are experts in anything, it's not playing.

"It was tough as a youngster," says Maharaj, "I used to play one game, miss three games. Then in and out."

"If they needed a fall guy, they would go with what they know," Peterson remembers. "'Let's just play all seam bowlers.'"

"When I first started, spinners were seen as something that were considered if the pitch was dry or they felt it would take spin in the second innings," Shamsi says.

"In the beginning, it was quite difficult," Harris says. "You get to a ground and look at the wicket and think, 'Here we go again, I'm not going to play this game.' You have to have a thick skin. You almost have to prepare to not be in the side.

Paul Harris:

Paul Harris: "They give you a role to do and you do it. Would I have liked to do more of an attacking role more often? Possibly." © AFP

"It's funny - when you find a wicket that turns, they don't think about leaving out the seamers. That's the nature of the beast."

Seamers dominate in New Zealand and England too, but few XIs walk out without one.

In the language of some of these bowlers who love spin, you see the way spin is thought of in South Africa. They love their art but there is a resignation when they talk about it.

Maharaj, arguably South Africa's greatest modern spinner, says his career break came despite his domestic team having four seamers. He saw his selection as fortunate.

Of the spinner's role, Adams says: "You might need to keep the run rate down, keep it quiet, get into the rough of the big fast bowlers."

Peterson says: "There is two ways we go about it in the South African team - a defensive spinner like Paul Harris [will be called on] to keep an end tight. Or the guy who contributes with the bat, who if conditions are in his favour will take wickets, but only if he can bat."

If you look purely at stats, in most places outside Asia, spinners make little sense in Tests. Outside Asia, seam bowlers average 29.8, spinners average 35.2. This century spin is 38.7, pace 30.9. To simplify it: unless you think there is a great spinner in your system, you could be forgiven for forgetting spin exists.

But there are obvious reasons beyond the basic numbers for spin. You need to rest your fast bowlers. Spinners are able to bowl longer spells. Pitches deteriorate. Footmarks come into play for spinners. Not all batsmen face spin well. Spinners offer a change in tempo, batsmen often lose their mind against flighted balls. Seam and swing are not always present. And if the ICC ever cracks down on over rates, spinners will be even more important.

Spin has changed from the uncovered-wicket era and will only remain in the game as long as it is useful. At the moment a quality spinner is still critical to your team, even with a couple of extra runs on their bowling average. But none of this is to do with the "holding your end up" mentality of South African spinners.

And there is another key part of spin in South Africa: batting.

The OG: Hugh Tayfield took 170 Test wickets for South Africa in the 1950s

The OG: Hugh Tayfield took 170 Test wickets for South Africa in the 1950s © Getty Images

South Africa love allrounders. If you look for seam-bowling allrounders in Tests who have averaged under 35 with the ball and over 30 with the bat, having scored at least 1000 runs and taken at least 50 wickets, you'll end up with 21 of them. Pollock, Brian McMillan and Kallis are on that list. Meaning that at one point South Africa had three of the rarest creatures in their team; they were triple-unicorning.

South Africa now have none. And they've tried to manufacture one ever since. After Kallis retired, they have tried seam allrounders Ryan McLaren, Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo, Stiaan van Zyl and Dwaine Pretorius. Vernon Philander has also batted at seven. Peterson and George Linde were the spin versions, and they had Duminy at No. 7 and were asking him to bowl more.

None of these players can regularly be Test allrounders. Most teams would have tried far more four-man attacks. But South Africa do not fundamentally agree with a four-man bowling attack. They like five bowlers, of whom four are seamers. Perhaps the rarest seen creature in cricket is the four-man South Africa bowling attack consisting of three seamers and a spinner. Without Kallis, they might never have tried Imran Tahir.

Cricket has often spread through imports to new culture. South Africa's original Test team had three players born in England and one in India. This is the case of many teams new to Tests. There was a thought that Douglas Jardine could be India's first captain. Australia had players who represented England. Associate teams around the world often start with players from existing cricket nations.

Often these players are seen as mercenaries or stop gaps. But their impact can change the culture of cricket somewhere. Would Ireland be who they are now if not for cricketers like Trent Johnston?

Tahir was a beautiful neon butterfly that appeared above the dank swamp of South African spin. By the time he made his first-class debut there, he had played for 12 teams, including two counties and Pakistan A. He had bowled on three continents in 59 matches over a decade. That tells you of his quality and experience, but it doesn't quite point out what difference he made to his adopted nation. With his extravagant Pakistani showman's prancing run-up and football goal wicket celebrations, he shouted, "I'm not from round here" with every devious wrong'un.

There's no way he wouldn't make an impact. And for many of the spinners in South Africa, he was the big bang. "Imran was the catalyst for attacking thinking," Peterson says. "He showed that you do need a spinner in your side," Maharaj says. "He's given us the platform to be exposed to international cricket."

"Immy has done a lot for spin bowling in South Africa," says Shamsi. "He became a major part of the attack. So suddenly there was an attacking spinner in the team, and that definitely changed people's perception in South Africa."

In white-ball cricket, Tahir was so good that he might have changed how South Africa think of spin there. But in Tests he failed, and there the doubt remains.

Maharaj is already a better Test spinner than Tahir by some distance. Barring injury or South Africa finding an even better spinner, Maharaj might become South Africa's all-time leading wicket-taker. Since he made his debut, he has taken the fourth most Test wickets of any spinner, and his bowling average is better than Yasir Shah's. Against Sri Lanka he took a nine-wicket haul. He has also got two five-wicket hauls in New Zealand. Maharaj may not be a rock star of South African cricket, but he is a terrific performer, and by South African spin standards, he's one of their greatest ever.

And as good as he is, Simon Harmer might be better. In the last three years he has taken 299 first-class wickets at 22. In the last three seasons in England he has 74, 57 and 86 wickets by year. His Kolpak deal means he is not available for South Africa, but the fact that South Africa have produced two spinners of this quality at the one time is phenomenal.

Not to forget Shamsi. Unlike other South African spinners who have travelled the globe - Roelof van der Merwe and Johan Botha - he has no all-round skill. Unlike Tahir, he's not an import. And he hasn't invented a bowling style like Adams did. Here is a local product, a left-arm wristspinner who has played in the IPL, CPL and the Blast.

One (of the many) that got away: Simon Harmer has had success with Essex in the County Championship

One (of the many) that got away: Simon Harmer has had success with Essex in the County Championship © Getty Images

It's hard to look at these three and think things aren't changing.

Harris agrees. "There have been captains that are changing things," he says. "Graeme [Smith] learnt along the way."

Peterson says: "When Graeme grew as a captain, we took three spinners to the 2011 World Cup. I opened the bowing." In the 2019 World Cup, South Africa played two wristspinners in two games in England.

Smith played in the IPL towards the end of his career; du Plessis has had seven seasons. When the IPL began, there was much talk of how young Indian players would get to hang out with master technicians from overseas. But while that has happened, the IPL has also turned into the finishing school county cricket once was, polishing overseas gems.

"With Faf we are quite blessed," Shamsi notes. "I think because he played in the IPL and other things, he has learned from other conditions. He sees things in a different way to a traditional South African captain." du Plessis has honed his T20 chops with Chennai Super Kings, where he has had expert tutelage by the eminent professor of the art of using spin, MS Dhoni.

There's no point finding better spinners if you don't encourage or use them. "It's good that South Africa sends spin bowlers to India every year," Peterson says, "but they really need to look at captaincy and coaching on why spin bowling is important and how to use it."

When I ask Maharaj about what kind of specialist coaching he had, he says, "I've never had anyone until I entered the South African set up." Shamsi says he used Tahir as his mentor. With Adams and Peterson as domestic coaches, things are changing.

If the mentality is changing, so are the wickets. "Pitches have become a lot more dry and used," says Peterson. "Not sure if that is climatic conditions or the traffic over the years. There is certainly a shift, in that spin bowlers have an advantage more now compared to when I started. Back then there were one or two pitches in the country that turned. Durban never turned. All of a sudden Durban turns and a first-class game we played, our spinners took 17 wickets. There is a change in the last ten years."

A few days after our chat, Maharaj was picked at St George's. On day one he delivered 31 overs for 55 runs, taking one wicket. He bowled well enough for three or four, but England were cautious against him. Still, even if he hadn't performed so magnificently, the fact that he delivered over a third of the overs suggested it was bizarre to have considered removing him.

Tabraiz Shamsi celebrates a wicket in Galle in 2018 - his second Test, which came two years after his first

Tabraiz Shamsi celebrates a wicket in Galle in 2018 - his second Test, which came two years after his first © Associated Press

The following day he picked up four more wickets - and some tap from a slogging Mark Wood - ending up with 5 for 180. An injustice in the light of his day-one efforts, but a five-wicket haul from a staggering 58 first-innings overs.

The next game, Maharaj wasn't picked. It was at the Wanderers, and neither team wanted a spinner there. Instead, ten front-line seamers played. South Africa were docked for slow over rates.

Maharaj has played three first-class matches at the Wanderers. In those he has been allowed 63.5 overs and has taken ten wickets. He has a bowling average of 22 there and takes his wickets every 38 balls. One of those matches was a Test, he took four wickets at 34.7, two more than his career mark. This time, a week after a five-wicket haul, he watched his team lose without him.

I spoke to many people in South Africa about this. Most felt - or at least hoped - it was changing. That spin was finally making its comeback. But broadcaster Neil Manthorp was very clear: "The job of a spinner is basically a domestic chore." In this land of all-round greats, nuggety batsmen and fast-bowling superheroes, the spinner is left to clean up when needed.

Maharaj would like to change that. "I want to leave a legacy behind in terms of promoting spin bowling in South Africa. Youngsters only want to be fast bowlers or batsmen. No one wants to be the best left-arm spinner.

"I had a dream as a youngster that I wanted to be the best spinner in the world for a decade. And as long as I am aiming towards something, it puts me on the right path. That is the message I want to send to youngsters."

The reality of spin in South Africa is tough, but they still dream.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber