New Zealand v South Africa, 2nd Test, Wellington, 3rd day

Maharaj withstands the wind

Keshav Maharaj has more wickets than any of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander or Kagiso Rabada this series. For a change, the quicks were creating pressure so the spinner could profit. How South African cricket has changed
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WATCH - Maharaj's six-wicket haul

The strength of a team's character, Graeme Smith used to say, is not seen when they scale a peak but when they remain steady at the top when strong winds threaten to blow them off. Smith was speaking figuratively after South Africa took the No.1 ranking from England in mid-2012. South Africa were acting out those words literally in Wellington almost five years later, where they are no longer the holders of the mace but pushed a position of authority so hard that they inflicted defeat on New Zealand inside three days to take an unassailable advantage in the three-match series.

Let's start with the wind. It was blowing from the south, the Antarctic, and filtering through the Cook Strait at speeds of around 50kph. So it was not just a wind but an icy scythe cutting through everything but the enthusiasm of the Wellington faithful, who arrived at the Basin Reserve with blankets to put over their singlets and shorts. South Africa, though, were more sensibly dressed.

Their bench-warmers wore soft-shell jackets, beanies and gloves. On the field, Kagiso Rabada, big, strapping Kagiso Rabada, had hand-warmers in his pockets and he held on to them like a kid to his security blanket. Faf du Plessis also had them in his pockets and when one of the warmers broke, it leaked a dark substance onto his fingers. Thank goodness du Plessis did not go near the ball with that.

And there were real consequences attached to this cold. When JP Duminy dropped the catch that would have dismissed Jeet Raval on 53, he immediately looked at his fingers, as if to blame them. Stephen Cook, who put Raval down at square leg on 76, was more stoic but there was more hand-rubbing than wringing in response. Temba Bavuma joked that he would have to bat with bricks in his pockets to avoid being blown away in the Wellington southerly. Would Keshav Maharaj need a whole house? Although not as short as Bavuma, Maharaj is certainly lighter. And he would have to do more than just keep himself upright, he would have to control a ball too.

Being a spinner on a cold, windy day isn't easy. Being a spinner in a South African attack, who tend to view their slower bowlers as gatecrashers at a private party, isn't easy either. And being a spinner on a pitch that showed no signs of deterioration early on and was as green as the outfield wasn't supposed to be easy. But with a bit of drift, an inviting line outside off and some help from New Zealand's batsmen and his own quicks, Maharaj must have wondered whether this gig was really as tough as it was made out to be.

After Maharaj tried to lure Neil Broom and Raval into a mistake, he succeeded in getting first-innings centurion Henry Nicholls to make one. The positivity Nicholls showed on the first day was misused on the third when he reached for a sweep and played on. That brain fade opened the over, Jimmy Neesham's closed it. Knowing the situation called for some responsibility, Neesham stepped down the track and tried to flick Maharaj over midwicket where he was met by a Plessis one-handed signature stunner. New Zealand were effectively -1 for 5 at the end of that over and mostly had themselves to blame.

Jeet Raval was one of Keshav Maharaj's six wickets in the second innings © AFP

As did Raval when he threw away the chance at a first hundred by making almost the same mistake Neesham did by stepping out, but instead of hitting the ball, he missed and was stumped. As did Tim Southee and BJ Watling, who both holed out when the heat was on. The only New Zealand batsman who was outfoxed by a delivery, and not by a tactic to force a mistake, was Colin de Grandhomme, who received a ripper that turned passed the outside edge and hit the top of off. 

So why did the rest allow Maharaj, who bowled 14 overs into the wind, to make such a mess of their attempts to set a target? Because at the other end, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Rabada were operating. Philander has bowled brilliantly throughout the two Tests with scant success; Morkel has returned to greater rewards and has used his aggression well and Rabada's pace is unmatched. Yet, Maharaj has more wickets than any of them. For a change, the quicks were creating pressure so the spinner could profit. How South African cricket has changed.

The last time a South African spinner took six wickets in an innings was eight years ago: Paul Harris against Australia in Cape Town. The last time a South African spinner took consecutive five-fors was 14 years ago: Paul Adams against Bangladesh in 2003. And the last time a South African spinner took 15 wickets in a series was 16 years ago: Nicky Boje West Indies. Maharaj has already bettered the first two and with 13 wickets so far he could overtake the third too. Those numbers are impressive but they don't fully explain what Maharaj adds to this attack: certainty.

While Adams lost his mystery, Boje and Harris did their job without setting the world alight. In searching for someone with a bit more spark, they moved on to Imran Tahir who tried so hard and got it so wrong that they went all the way back to Robin Peterson. Dane Piedt was an interesting experiment and that may continue as early as next week in Hamilton, where South Africa are expecting a turner. But there is no doubt that Piedt is No. 2. 

The No. 1 is a character whose confidence in his on-field performances - even with bat in hand Maharaj isn't afraid to give it horns - morphs into boy-scout bashfulness off it. He is a man who has mastered the role of a South Africa spinner which is mostly a behind-the-scenes one but can step up when needed. He is the one who withstood the wind.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • flat_track_no_baller on March 20, 2017, 9:43 GMT

    Couple things quickly, Captain FAF a few posts back called for the axing of amla and philander to be replaced by vilas of all people and four other white cricketers he could name...... In my post i do mention the fact that even the players of colour are an indication of the gulf that exists between rich and poor ( because they came through the private school system ). So you reckon the government is to blame for the fact that poor kids dont stand a fighting chance against rich kids and that 22 years is enough time to have redressed the imbalance in our society. Mmmm Lets forget that issue for a moment, why should a player of colour perform magical feats on the cricket field for SA just to justify his inclusion?? Jonty rhodes played 52 tests for 3 hundreds and a 35 avg and he is considered a legend. If any player of color fails you guys attack his credentials, BUT even worse if he succeeds you attack his credentials as can be seen in your posts here., an article celebrating Kesh'.

  • Bazza_SAF on March 19, 2017, 23:00 GMT

    Flat track.... WHO has ever called for philander and Amla to be replaced by white players?? Ffs your agenda is so parhetic and lets get the point about no facilities for the poor(black or white) sorted! What exactly has this corrupt govt done to level the playing fields?? And dont say i was privileged as my family was affexted by apartheid but 22 YEARS later im not gping to continue blaming it for all wrong presently. What has CSA done to level the playing fields and provide the infrastructure needed? Gary Kirsten got tired of asking them to do sonethibg so he started his own charity to provide facilities and coaching. So STOP whinging about apartheid and move forward with the times! This SA team 22 years later should be selected on merit regardless of obes colour! And you rejoice in players of colour like Amla, Bavuma and Rabada yet they were produced by the private school system, not the govt or CSA!! Move on little man.

  • Grassburn on March 19, 2017, 21:14 GMT

    Well done, The Proteas, on a great victorious match! And well done, Keshav Maharaj, for doing it again, and again, and again! There is hope and expectation in all formats, and it is an exciting time to be a Proteas supporter. After the retirement of Jacques Kallis, the bad luck of Dale Steyn's and ABD's injuries, there was lots of concerns that our games were built around those greats, and that The Proteas would crumble without them. However, they are great contributors to the SA Cricketing Legacy, which has proven to be resilient and kept on evolving to remain a global force in The Game. ABD and Steyn will return to Test Cricket eventually (and hopefully!), and again leave their mark on The Game.....Just like Morkel! But the future belongs to men like QDK, Elgar(still!) Faf (still!) Maharaj, Rabada, Ngidi, Phehlukwayo, to name but a few. Irrespective of race and the much-maligned quota debacle, the talent coming through to rise to the top is phenomenal, and Cricket in South Africa seems to be in healthy state..... Good comments, VLEIS. Well said, FLAT_TRACK_NO_BALLER

  • Vleis on March 19, 2017, 20:51 GMT

    @ flat_track_no_baller I'm not sure if your "you guys" comment includes me or not. In summary, my views are: a) If you don't understand that not picking a team based purely on merit will weaken it then, with respect, let's not continue the discussion as you are waaay too far behind the curve. b) Let's take a rain-check on the debate re whether quotas are a necessary evil to re-balance the injustices of the past, as it is far to complex an issue to resolve on this forum...and can't be answered via a simple binary 'yes' or 'no' answer. c) My key point is that regardless of your views re a) & b) above, the players who represent our country did not pick themselves and deserve our full, unconditional support whether they are white, black, green or blue.

  • flat_track_no_baller on March 19, 2017, 18:47 GMT

    We havent lost a series since csa enforced quotas for the proteas openly so i dont see how we have " weakened" the national team.

    Or maybe you guys are saying australia, nz and sri lanka are useless

  • flat_track_no_baller on March 19, 2017, 18:43 GMT

    Poor old brokensaint at it again, using every oppertunity to vent. Apartheid created unequal society, whites benefited at the expense of others and even though apartheid has gone, that inequality remains. Cricket in south africa is an unequal sport, the rich have a much better chance of making it than the poor, even the players of colour in the team are testiment to that. Too many poor players of colour will NEVER even make a schools team because the playing field is not equal. Equipment, facilities, coaching is denied them so they inevitably start way behind the rest because they are poor. Why should white players benefit because their parents' sins provided them with a better base than poor players of colour. Anyone attacking players of colour in this proteas team even when they are successfull is clearly someone longing for the past. And people calling for Philander and Amla to be replaced by white players clearly need to be transported back to the 50's so they can be at peace.

  • Cricmj Makes on March 19, 2017, 18:12 GMT

    There was no compromise for 60 of Tokenism, hence the status quo bro

  • Vleis on March 19, 2017, 7:14 GMT

    @ Brokensaint: agreed, as stated in the first sentence of my comment below. However, there is a difference between attacking the system v attacking the man. Let's support all SA players that are picked, but keep the pressure on to change the system.

  • Cricmj Makes on March 19, 2017, 5:30 GMT

    Lovely article. His debut in Aus showed something

  • Brokensaint on March 19, 2017, 5:04 GMT

    vleis there is no compromise on what's right or wrong and no justification in the world will ever excuse the current obvious tokenism based selection process. if we don't fight for true freedom the current polarising system will continue to devide and not heal. history is indeed repeating itself.

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