The story of Keshav Maharaj's miracle comeback

A ruptured Achilles tendon can take nine months to heal, but the SA spinner was back on the park in less than six, thanks to cutting-edge medical science and steely resolve

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Keshav Maharaj was elated by dismissing Jason Roy, England vs South Africa, 1st ODI, Chester-le-Street, July 19, 2022

'My forefathers are from India, so I want to go back there and try to do something special [at the World Cup]. That was the motivation I needed'  •  Getty Images

When you will see Keshav Maharaj in action at the upcoming ODI World Cup starting in three weeks, look closely and you might notice a slight limp on his left side caused by the barest of external rotations. But that is the only clue that just over six months ago, he suffered a complete rupture of his Achilles' tendon, an injury that typically keeps athletes off the park for between nine months and a year, and which was almost certain to prevent him from playing in the tournament.
Thanks to a combination of improved medical science and a militant approach to rest and rehabilitation, Maharaj has fashioned the unlikeliest of comebacks, and doesn't mind that he has the proverbial scar to show for it.
"I will have a limp for some time, but it's all about teaching yourself how to do certain things again," Maharaj said ahead of South Africa's fourth ODI against Australia in Centurion. "It was about putting my head down and giving myself a chance. It's about giving yourself a chance to get back to where you feel you belong."
So how exactly did he do it?
Maharaj underwent surgery six days after sustaining the injury in seemingly innocuous fashion. He took off in celebration after dismissing Kyle Mayers in a Test against West Indies in Johannesburg, and then crashed to the floor with an expression that we thought revealed extreme pain. But for most people, a complete rupture can look worse than it feels.
"Athletes I've worked with often say that they felt like someone had thrown a stone that hit the back of their leg, or maybe just accidentally kicked them," Dr Shuaib Manjra, Cricket South Africa's head of medical, told ESPNcricinfo. "But what you will see is that they lose power in the leg immediately."
That's why when Dean Elgar rushed to Maharaj's side and lifted his foot off the ground, it appeared almost limp in his hand. That alone suggested the injury was serious.
"It was traumatic to watch," Athmanand Maharaj, Keshav's father, said. "And Keshav was a bit down when he found out later that he would be out for a while, and that he needed an operation."
With good reason. At that stage, Maharaj was South Africa's first-choice white-ball spinner, and was looking forward to helping them qualify for the World Cup. He was ruled out of a stint with Middlesex for the County Championship and the T20 Blast; and with leagues popping up in the USA and Canada may have even fancied an extra gig.
But all those plans came to an abrupt halt as Maharaj's only choice was going under the knife. For that, he opted for his hometown of Durban, where leading orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Kevin MacIntyre is based. MacIntyre's practice is based on minimally invasive surgeries, and for Achilles' ruptures he has been using a method pioneered in 2018 called percutaneous repair. This involves making several small cuts to access the damaged tissue instead of only a single large one. This facilitates quicker healing and leads to fewer wound complications.
"With the old method, we had to go right through the tendon sheath, and so healing would take a long time," Manjra said.
Despite the advancement in the procedure and MacIntyre's expertise in the field, CSA did not quite agree when he predicted Maharaj would take five months to recover.
"We were much more circumspect, and were working on around six to seven months," Manjra said. "We knew that psychologically, it's difficult for any player. With a World Cup looming, you think, 'Will I make it?' And also, 'Is it the end of my career?' And being immobile is terrible for anybody - but especially for someone like Keshav, who is very active. We were cautious."
Perhaps they did not realise the strength of Maharaj's resolve. Although, as Athmanand recalled, Maharaj would occasionally "get a little ratty because he loves to be on the field and he could see all his friends there", he also pulled out all the stops to get better.
Having previously changed his diet to lose weight and improve his fitness in order to be selected for his provincial side, Maharaj consulted a nutritionist again - this time to understand if food could help his recovery, and he admitted to being fastidious about it.
"I sacrificed a hell of a lot in that time - from a diet, a rehab and a recovery point of view," Maharaj said. "I was making sure I was getting eight to ten hours of sleep every night; and I put my family under pressure because in terms of diet, I had to make sure I ate certain things. And I had to make sure I ate on time, and things like that."
There was no miracle diet, but Maharaj's focus on eating was to ensure he could build and maintain muscle in difficult circumstances.
"Because Keshav is vegetarian, we had to make sure he was increasing his protein intake, as proteins are the building blocks of muscle," Manjra said. "There were some modifications to his diet to make sure he got adequate nutrition."
Maharaj also did not stop training. Even while still wearing a moonboot, Maharaj concentrated on upper-body strength and core work, and then began to use an anti-gravity treadmill at the rugby academy. The machine was developed in the 1990s by biomechanics researchers at NASA, who wanted to help astronauts working at the International Space Station, and who were at risk of losing bone density and muscle mass.
Essentially, it encloses the lower part of the body in an airtight chamber, which allows an athlete like Maharaj to train his legs without bearing weight, and slowly increase the weight-bearing as they become more able.
Maharaj was given a weekly training program, and had to submit regular reports. Athmanand recalls the medical staff being "stunned" by his son exceeding his goals on each occasion. That's when Maharaj himself knew he was healing.
"When you see how slow the initial phases of rehab are, you have a negative thought here and there. But at four months, when I started to walk in the moonboot, then I pushed myself beyond certain levels that I don't think most people would have been able to do," Maharaj said. "At five months, I started to believe once I started to run again. I realised the dream is reality. Once I started bowling in that period, the belief never left me."
All the while, there was one golden opportunity which lay ahead, one which Maharaj did not want to pass up.
"The World Cup was a big thing for me. I've played in two T20 World Cups, but 50 overs is very hard on the body," he said. "That's something I wanted to experience. I always like to challenge myself. I plotted the way. At three months, I probably wouldn't have said I'd get here. But my medical team gave me the best chance.
"And then seeing as I was very close to the World Cup, it meant everything to want to play. My forefathers are from India, so I want to go back there and try to do something special. That was the motivation I needed."
Athmanand, who has watched Maharaj play in India before, admitted that when he heard his son's name mentioned at the World-Cup squad announcement, "it was so emotional". Although he now finds himself in charge of the renovations for the house Maharaj bought during his period of injury, Athmanand doesn't mind the extra work "because Keshav is going there to live out his dream".
Not just his. Maharaj recognises that the story of his successful recovery could encourage anyone who finds themselves on the sidelines.
"As a professional cricketer, you want to be a role model," Maharaj said. "So for any guys with long-term injury, there is hope at the end of the tunnel."
Already, South Africa's ODI captain Temba Bavuma has hailed Maharaj as an inspiration and proof that hard work pays off. For those close to Maharaj, it's not really a surprise that he went the extra mile. He is known to be one of the fittest members of the squad, one who runs the 2km time trial as quickly as in 6 minutes and 20 seconds - the standard is 8:30 - and who prides himself on his commitment to being the best he can be.
"That's Keshav - he left no stone unturned," Athmanand said. "Nothing is a barrier for him. He is a warrior."
Fitting then that it was the tendon named after the great Greek hero that threatened to derail Keshav Maharaj's career, but that he didn't allow it to and became the champion of his own story.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket