'Maharaj is a grinder, he is a fighter'
After two Tests and with the series safe, it's South Africa's left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj who is the leading wicket-taker after collecting the best figures by a visiting spinner at the Basin Reserve and the second-best overall. And he was not the only slower bowler to make an impact. He shared a dozen wickets with JP Duminy - whose bowling was thought to have regressed - to leave New Zealand's plans of preparing less seamer-friendly surfaces in disarray and provide reward for South Africa's years of quiet investment into developing their spinners.
After the Wellington victory, South Africa's spin consultant Claude Henderson spoke about Maharaj's growth, the role of the spinner in South Africa and the chances of a three-pronged spin attack in Hamilton.
Were you surprised to see spinners do well in New Zealand?
We knew the wickets were going to be slow. We didn't know it was going to spin that much. We've seen Keshav bowl well on wickets that didn't turn, go back to Perth, so he's always going to be in the game. There's more assistance here - maybe not as much bounce but more turn out of the pitch. He has had great support, good runs on the board and he is improving as a bowler.
How does Maharaj understand his role in the team? Is he expected to operate as a containing bowler and regard any wickets as a bonus or does he have a licence to be more aggressive if the situation calls for it?
In Test cricket, if you have got the ability to stop the game, it makes you quite an accurate bowler. I believe good spin bowlers can bowl on any deck. He has technically improved a lot over the last 12 months. It's asking a seamer, look the wicket's green, now go and take me five wickets, rather than get the ball in the right areas and the rest will happen. You are trying to get them in the right mental state to say let's just build pressure. If you do that, you will be in the game anyway. There's never expectation to take wickets, even on day five. I chat to the spinners to take the pressure off them and say if you build pressure on these wickets, with people around the bat, things will happen. Whether it is day one, day three, day five with people around the bat and defensive fields, you've still got to stop the game. That's the simple secret to Test cricket; you've got to create pressure. To do that you have to be technically good enough and mentally understand what's going on. And have a good captain. So far, things have gone our way. There are days when things don't go your way, then you have to have a plan B and plan C.
What does Maharaj offer the South African team that some of the other spinners in the recent past have lacked?
All spinners are different. What's impressed me is his mindset. He is quite mature, he has done his time in the nets growing up as a spinner. He understands what's needed at certain times, which is important. I'm not saying the others didn't but he is technically very good. And he is a grinder, he is a fighter. Who would have said when Dale [Steyn] broke down in that gale force wind, he would hold the game for us? You need to be strong to do that but also understand the conditions and have the plan and the ability to do it. I won't say he is better than the others but I think his arrival is exciting for South African cricket. He has taken his opportunity and he has done really well. You don't have to always have four or five wickets in the bag to be a good spinner. You can bowl 40 overs, take 1 for 80 and be a good spinner. He has understood the conditions, what the team needs and just come through.
South African cricket has produced more quality spinners recently than at any other time and it seems they feel more at home in what has traditionally been a seamer's environment. Why do you think that is the case?
They have changed the policy at youth cricket, to bowl more spin in their competition. T20 has obviously helped as well because we all know in T20, successful teams will have one or two good spinners in the team. Our conditions are sometimes not in favour of spin but we play a lot of ICC tournaments in the subcontinent. We also play a lot of other cricket in the subcontinent. The other point I want to make is that there is no Jacques Kallis and because of that you need somebody in the Test side to be able to hold the game in any conditions - whether its day one at the Wanderers or day four in India - you need somebody to bowl those overs and grow into it. It's fantastic to see that the spin culture is growing. It's important that keeps growing and the right messages gets sent to those spinners coming through.
South Africa's last proper dalliance with spin was in the India series at the end of 2015 when they lost a first series away from home in nine years. Given the progress they have made in developing spin bowlers and playing spinners and do you think they would be better equipped for a trip there now?
We don't know. I would love to see Keshav one day go to India. I don't think he has had a wicket yet that assisted him a lot but the same messages will be there - to stop the game and to build pressure. That trip we had to India was a tough one. I haven't seen games where there were 20 wickets in three days, twice. It was a good experience for us but I don't think it's anything like what we see now in the tours India have hosted against New Zealand and Australia. We've always been good players of spin so that was different for me. Our boys play a lot of cricket in the subcontinent now, these boys know how to play spin.
With Dane Piedt added to the squad ahead of the Hamilton Test, South Africa could go into the match with three spin options, including JP Duminy. Do you see that happening?
The management and selectors thought the last venue would spin as we saw in the one-dayers and New Zealand have got a few left-handers in their team so Dane is just giving us another option. We don't know if he is going to play or not but it will be nice to have him around. He has done very well for Cobras. We all know he is a good bowler. And then with JP, the nice thing about JP is that he is batting in the top six as well so that helps. The option is there to go in with the two spinners and JP but we will see when we get there.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent