England v South Africa, 2nd Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 2nd day July 15, 2017

Maharaj the catalyst as South Africa take command in adversity

Despite an erratic display from their seamers, South Africa secured a priceless 130-run lead, thanks largely to their under-rated spinner

Keshav Maharaj produced a beauty to remove Jonny Bairstow © Getty Images

South Africa thought it would take two bowlers to make up for Kagiso Rabada's absence. It almost took too many.

After Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander did with the new ball what bowlers of their quality and experience tend to do with the new ball and made it "talk", South Africa would ordinarily have had Rabada to continue the conversation. Instead, they had Chris Morris, who has only played in two first-class matches apart from the Worcester tour match since making his Test debut in January 2016, and Duanne Olivier, who has played in just five first-class matches since his first cap in January this year. To say the pair were undercooked would not be overstating things.

Morris started too short and stayed there with 23 of his 53 deliveries pitched either back of a length or short. By comparison, Morkel bowled only 12 deliveries in the same area out of the 78 he sent down, a lesson that fuller was going to be key on this pitch. Faf du Plessis tried to set fields for the short-ball trap, routinely moving his fine leg in the hope Joe Root would pick him out, but it was not the ideal way to be strategising. And while Morris struggled with length, Olivier battled to find the right line. In the six overs after the opening pair's initial spells, South Africa conceded 41 runs.

A band-aid over of spin took the teams into the lunch break and allowed the frontline quicks to rest up. They needed it because more was demanded of them after the interval. While Philander bowled a four-over post-lunch spell, Morkel was asked for double that to keep the pressure on, at least from one end.

The extended spell proved crucial because it was during that period that Morkel removed Root, the biggest threat to South Africa's chances of taking the lead, but not the only one. England's middle-order packs a powerful punch and Root's scoring rate had given them the platform to counterpunch.

So du Plessis had a conundrum on his hands. With Morkel needing a break and Philander taking over from his end, he needed to plug a gap on the other side. He could not go back to Morris, whose first three overs cost 20, or keep Olivier, whose wretched time had only continued. On a seamer's surface, half of South Africa's pack seemed to be wasting their chances, so it was the spinner who had to do the job.

Keshav Maharaj is not a huge turner of the ball - except at Lord's last week when he managed to get one to land on middle and veer to slip early on - but he is disciplined and consistent. He finds decent areas, does not offer many scoring opportunities, and benefits when batsmen get frustrated. It's easy to underestimate the impact he can have and that may have been what Ben Stokes did.

After 37 minutes at the crease, Stokes had only faced 11 balls and had not scored a run when Maharaj drew him forward with a ball that was placed just outside off. Stokes got an inside-edge that bounced off his pad to de Kock - almost via the grille - to give South Africa an all-important "in". Though Stokes has not done extensive damage with the bat in this series, South Africa know what he is capable of. Du Plessis had even nicknamed him "the dragon", for his ability to breathe fire into a performance. Getting rid of him for a duck put South Africa in a position from which they could think about taking control.

Within four overs, that thought became reality when Maharaj manufactured his next bit of magic. For all that's been said about his unspectacular style, in his last over before tea, he found drift and turn and beat Jonny Bairstow's inside-edge to bowl him and put South Africa well ahead, with room to manoeuvre. They did not need to rely on the 20 minutes between the afternoon and evening sessions for Philander and Morkel to freshen up because Maharaj had done a good enough job to hold up an end so that the quicks could rotate at the other.

After tea, however, instead of starting with the obvious choice - Morkel to mop up - du Plessis made a bold move and brought back Morris. Having kept Morris out of the game, the captain deemed it safe to reintroduce him and his reading of the situation was entirely correct. Morris will now remember this innings because he was on a hat-trick at one stage - having dismissed Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad in successive deliveries with full balls (hint, hint) - and not because he was carted around for more than six runs an over at another. His confidence will have been boosted because he repaid du Plessis' faith in him and contributed to securing a big lead.

But the real hero of the second half of the South African bowling performance is Maharaj. Like so many South African spinners, he goes about his business almost unnoticed but he is anything but an afterthought. At his worst, he has simply kept things tight, and has only cost South Africa more than three-and-a-half runs an over twice in his nine Test career. At his best, he keeps the pressure on an opposition and forces them into making mistakes. His 15 wickets in three Tests in New Zealand in March is evidence of that.

Unlike his most immediate predecessors - Dane Piedt, Imran Tahir and Simon Harmer - Maharaj is not simply a supporting actor. He is reliable and relentless and, though he and Rabada have very little in common when it comes to their bowling, today Maharaj's work more than made up for Rabada's absence.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Anees on July 18, 2017, 7:27 GMT

    @Alex Maharaj averages 25 with the ball (And hasn't played a test in the sub continent yet), Ali averages 38 and Dawson averages 42. So in spite of not playing in conditions that suit spin bowling he has done remarkably well. Please do a check of spinners records outside of the sub-continent and compare those to Maharaj and you will find he has doing EXTREMELY well.

  • Bruce on July 18, 2017, 0:16 GMT

    @Cricinfouser on July 15, 2017, 19:51 GMT: In short, I believe the issue is that they tend to 'go missing' at certain times during most games (this test an exception). In test matches they have time and a second innings in which to recover whereas in ODI's that opportunity doesn't exist. If you look at their record since readmission it is quite incredible the number of times that they have come from behind to win test matches. This even extends to ODI series where they lose the early games and then come back to win the series. In ICC tournaments there is no such luxury - one bad game and you're out the back door - which is why they have such a poor record in world cups, etc. As Firdose once put it, they pride themselves in their ability to fight back. The problem with that is you have to fall behind before you can fight back...!

  • Alex on July 16, 2017, 3:21 GMT

    Test matches are won by who won the moments. Identifying the situation and play according to it. Maharaj have the knack of knowing what to do in that situation. he won't be super in spinning wickets because his job is not float the ball but keep tight control on things and apply pressure from one side so fast bowlers can feast on batsman mistake. he is a fast bowlers dream support bowler. I only imagine if steyn come back and who would you drop? maharaj or chris morris?. chris morris though need to learn his role. He need to be in your face bowler and bow chest height ball testing batsman hooking ability. His job is not bowling outside the off or bowling HIT ME ball. If he learns his role , this SA team will become unbeatable. SA need two good opener. I don't like elgar as well but that is in future. Let SA find one opener first.

  • Yogesh on July 16, 2017, 1:51 GMT

    Wonderful article. Maharaj is a great find for the Saffas. And man, this captain. Du Plessis is pure gold. Why the SA selectors don't tell the over-rated ABD that he is a third-rate captain and that he should play as a batsman or not at all, beats me. Du Plessis is perhaps the best captain in the world today. From an Indian supporter in the U.S.

  • Bruce on July 15, 2017, 23:26 GMT

    Maharaj is doing a fantastic job for SA - keeps picking up important wickets at key moments in the game. If Morris can just find some consistency with the ball he will provide great balance to the side, giving them the extra bowling option while also adding depth to the batting. With Rabada to come back in for Olivier it gives SA a pretty formidable attack. They just need to fix their top order batting. Kuhn doesn't look like he's the answer so time to blood young Markham.

  • Faan on July 15, 2017, 23:22 GMT

    Great cricket article on the Proteas' performance. Wonderfully refreshing not to have to read about sideshows and 'for the greater good' nonsense.

  • Alex on July 15, 2017, 21:50 GMT

    He will never have stat of good spinner but he is important COG in Faf winning wheel. Without him Faf will struggle to plug the leak. Fast bowlers will rarely have control over things. Control spinner is a like a diamond and precious. Some day he may not needed and have to sit in shelf but if you need grand win , he will Shine. :)

  • kendal6601268 on July 15, 2017, 20:24 GMT

    I am probably the only South African, or one of few, who thinks Paul Harris did a great job in the team he played in - in terms of his role rather than being a world-beating spinner. Quite like his insights into the game, too. But there is no doubt Maharaj is a step up from those days. Seems to do well on traditional fast-bowler wickets if one thinks back to Perth. Perhaps a legacy of playing in SA, although the Kingsmead wicket has been pretty slow during the time he came up the ranks. If he can get his batting consistently up to his potential it will also help a lot. Keep going bro.

  •   Cricinfouser on July 15, 2017, 19:51 GMT

    What makes this Proteas test team so special ??? I mean the ODI team crumble when there is pressure but the test team always fight back in tough situations and win, They have been doing this for almost a decade now. Traveling the world and conquering all nations in their wake, I would love some opinions on this topic guys...

  • Muzammil on July 15, 2017, 19:16 GMT

    keshav bowling really well. i think He needs to work on his batting though because he can easily average around 25 with his talent. Clean ball striker. But for now we can allow him to continue bowling so beautifully

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