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Elgar: Maharaj and Harmer helped us play a 'style of cricket we're not used to'

South Africa captain lauds his match-winning spinners, but wants to move back to "style where fast bowling is our prime source of attack"

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
04-Apr-2022
Simon Harmer dismissed Shadman Islam early, South Africa vs Bangladesh, 1st Test, Durban, 4th Day, April 3, 2022

Simon Harmer and Keshav Maharaj took 14 wickets between them in the Durban Test  •  AFP/Getty Images

New South Africa, who dis?
Never mind that this was the first time since 1970 that they chose to play two spinners in a home Test, it is also the first time ever that only two South African bowlers have taken all 10 wickets in an innings. Those two bowlers happened to be spinners.
"How awesome was it to see two spin bowlers bowling in tandem and have it on a string and absolutely dominate the opposition," the captain Dean Elgar said, having made the decision to use both spinners to open the bowling in fading light on the fourth afternoon rather than giving the new ball to a seamer.
"It was great to see both of them competing at such a high level. Most batting line-ups would have had a tough ask against them. The pure skill level and intensity they brought along with their consistency was amazing to witness."
Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer took 14 wickets between them in the match - shared evenly - as they traded glory. The first innings was Harmer's, as he made a comeback to Test cricket following a seven-year hiatus, most of it spent as a Kolpak player. The second was Maharaj's, who surged back from going wicketless in the first to fast-forward the team to victory and put in his best performance at home.
On a pitch that was merely slow - not a raging turner - both of them built their success on discipline rather than extreme spin, but good areas is where what they have in common begins and ends.
Maharaj is a darling of South African cricket, who came in as a little-known player in 2016 and has unassumingly gone about his business while breaking records in the process. He has played in all formats, and even captained in white-ball internationals. He is now the country's most successful spinner in Tests since readmission. He is dependable and determined with a heartwarming backstory of learning to play the game from his father, who was denied access to greater opportunities in the country because of the colour of his skin.
Harmer is controversial, having walked away from the game citing uncertainty in a transforming system as a fairly ordinary talent and returning after headlining the county circuit, as an outstanding one. Although he revealed he was ridden with self-doubt in the Durban Test, since embarking on a career in England, Harmer has come across as uber-confident, to the point of labelling himself the best offspinner in the world. He backed that up by topping the first-class bowling charts on his return. Harmer then leapfrogged George Linde into the squad named to play Bangladesh and showed why, with his four-fer in the first innings.
At first, it seemed the parable of the prodigal would come to pass. Harmer out-bowled Maharaj in the first innings and was humble in the aftermath, still questioning whether four wickets proved he was good enough to be back. Was Maharaj a little envious?
"I understand that you're not going to get wickets all the time. I was in a good space in terms of the way I felt the ball was coming out," Maharaj said. "It does get a bit frustrating not getting rewards."
"It shows a lot of character with regards to adapting and being put in conditions we are not familiar with. It also shows a lot of strength within our group that we have the resources to adapt"
Elgar on South Africa moving away from their comfort zone
Was that why Maharaj celebrated with Imran Tahir-like gusto when he began running through Bangladesh in the second innings? Or was it something else? "I love playing cricket at Kingsmead. Kingsmead is my home," he said. "To have my family witness me help the team over the line is even more special to me."
Among the fans in the ground on Monday morning was his dad, Athmanand, his mother Kanchan, his older sister Tarisma and her three children. When Maharaj was born, in 1990, his family would not have been allowed to sit in the presidents' suite, from where they watched him today. Athmanand grew more animated with every wicket and the family gathered for a group photograph on the boundary-edge afterwards. Harmer also had a support squad. His brother and his wife were in attendance and that crew may grow later this week, when the series moves to Gqeberha, where Harmer played his domestic cricket.
Could South Africa play two spinners again? Given the conditions and personnel at their disposal (sans the IPL six, four of whom - Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen and Anrich Nortje - make up the frontline pace pack) it's a distinct possibility even if it's not Elgar's preferred way of doing things.
"It's not the style of cricket we are generally used to or want to play. We still want to play Highveld cricket where you are playing three seamers, an allrounder and a world-class spinner and have that style where fast bowling is our prime source of attack," he said.
But, over the last five days South Africa have shown that they can play with a combination that haven't always used.
"It shows a lot of character with regards to adapting and being put in conditions we are not familiar with. It also shows a lot of strength within our group that we have the resources to adapt," Elgar said. "We play quite a lot of cricket in the sub. It was great to expose our bowling attack to having two spinners operating in tandem. There's so many positives out of that. There's a lot of good things that happened in the last five days."
Mostly that South Africa saw there is space for a different kind of attack, with two different kinds of spinners, who are also different types of people, in their Test XI.
"Having Simon is a good thing," Maharaj said. "It's nice to learn how he sees things and I would think he likes to learn how I see things. He is good to have in the change-room, he is lots of fun, he's got good ideas and he has matured a lot as a cricketer. We can see the way he is bowling, it's world class - his shape on the ball, his trajectories, his lines and lengths and also the way he thinks about things on the field is quite remarkable and an asset to this team."
It also indicates there is more depth to the South Africa's talent pool (perhaps thanks to Brexit and the new 15-team domestic system) than was suspected, which bodes well for a winter trip to England and their chances in this World Test Championship, although Elgar was careful not to get too far ahead of himself.
"That has been an area that we've struggled in but the only way you get a taste or a feeling (for international cricket) is by exposure. I think we are getting there with regards to exposure but I don't think we are there yet," he said. "We've still maybe got a season or two to go that can really reassure our minds of being 100% confident with regards to having quite a big pool. It's still a work in progress. In saying that, guys have experienced Test cricket and what it demands and the kind of cricket you have to play to get a victory."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent