Maharaj readies for his biggest challenge yet

Keshav Maharaj celebrates his maiden Test wicket Getty Images

Keshav Maharaj is the fastest South African spinner to 50 Test wickets since readmission in 1992, and the joint-second fastest in the country's history. In 14 Tests, he has only gone wicketless once, in Hobart in November 2016 where he bowled only seven overs. He has names like Jonny Bairstow (five dismissals in four matches), Joe Root, Alastair Cook and Steven Smith in his wicket's column - this much success in such a short span despite not playing in the subcontinent yet.

The last bit is pertinent because Maharaj's left-arm spin has been successful even in conditions that don't suit him. It makes you wonder how he may have done if the opposite was the case. In more spinner-friendly conditions, will Maharaj become South Africa's Ravindra Jadeja? We may only know in July-August, when South Africa are due to tour Sri Lanka. However, a possible follow-up question could be answered in the next three weeks: how will Maharaj fare against batsmen who have been brought up on spin?

The Indian line-up will be Maharaj's first real pressure test. It's the first time he will be truly targeted, partly because it will come naturally to India and mostly because the pace pack and a lively pitch will make scoring off seamers difficult. If India want quick runs or just to feel a release, it is more than likely that they will dial Maharaj. But there's someone who thinks this won't be all that easy.

"He is not an easy bowler to hit and if they are going to attack him, they might get away with it for a while but then he may get one to spin a little more or to skid on. He has got a way of picking up a few wickets," Robin Peterson, one of Maharaj's predecessors, told ESPNcricinfo. "The other thing about playing against India is that you need to be mentally tough and expect them to come at you. Keshav definitely has what it takes. He is fit enough to bowl long spells and his control is excellent."

Consistency is one of the key features of Maharaj's bowling, perhaps why he was preferred over Dane Piedt, the offspinner, who has tended to be a touch expensive. "Keshav doesn't bowl many bad balls. Not many full tosses, not much you can hit. He is very accurate," Claude Henderson, South Africa's spin bowling consultant, said.

Henderson is the only member of the coaching staff who was retained from the Russell Domingo era to work under Ottis Gibson, primarily because of the work he has done with Maharaj. Together they have worked on some key technical tweaks that have helped Maharaj make the step up to international cricket seamlessly.

"When I first saw him, there were a few technical things we needed to work on, like where he delivered the ball from and his wrist position," Henderson said. "He needed to be delivering the ball more from mid-crease, especially on good decks, and he used to undercut the ball with this wrist, which he does not do anymore. He has also started to put more revolutions on the ball and gets late drift."

Maharaj's ability to turn the ball more than almost any other South African spinner in the 2000s and the late drift make him more than just a defensive option, although his primary role will be to contain. "He is a defensive bowler if conditions can't help him, but even to be able to hold up things you've got to be a good spinner because it's difficult to keep top-order batsmen who are in quiet," Henderson said. "But if conditions suit him, then he will obviously become more attacking and maybe on day four or five, if the team is in the lead, we can have more catchers around the bat. It's also having smart field placings and connecting with the captain."

The leadership angle is where Peterson thinks Maharaj has it better than those that came before him. "He has a captain who backs him," Peterson said. "I think there has been a change in culture in terms of spin, which probably started towards the latter end of my career and South Africa started to see they really do need a spinner. Before it was like the spinner was just that irritating player who they needed to include but now they have seen the importance a good spinner."

Now, the hope is that other countries will experience that South Africa's attitude has changed too. They've gone from a team that considered a spinner, especially at home, nothing more than a glorified 12th man, to one who is a player they can rely on against any opposition, even those who are stronger against spin like India.

While Maharaj can take heart from the recent evidence of spinners' success against India - Nathan Lyon and Stephen O'Keefe took 38 wickets between them in India on Australia's 2017 tour - he will be mindful that those numbers were achieved in helpful conditions. He will be equally aware that South Africa are not planning to provide anything similar and so even if he just plays more of a supporting role, he can still enjoy some success in this series.

"It's about knowing your opposition very well and understanding what the team needs. He is clued up on if the ball goes around, he to keep an end quiet so the seamers can bowl with fresh legs," Henderson said. "That doesn't mean he isn't working on different angles and different deliveries. He is a smart cricketer, very humble and works extremely hard."