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Interviews

Keshav Maharaj: 'I believe character wins trophies, not skill'

The captain of Durban's Super Giants talks about his leadership philosophy, and his future with South Africa

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
08-Feb-2024
Keshav Maharaj wore a face like thunder.
His Durban's Super Giants side failed to chase 158 against Sunrisers Eastern Cape and secure a spot in the SA20 final. Though they can still get there via a second qualifier, Maharaj demands excellence and would have preferred to succeed on the first attempt.
"I am a very driven, motivated person. I might not be a very flamboyant person but I am quite a head boy," he says the day before that first-chance Qualifier match. "l am quite disciplined."
That trait has been in evidence - from the time he dealt with the rejection of not making South Africa's Under-19 squad by taking himself out of his comfort zone for a stint in the Sussex Premier League, where he got into better shape and focused on his fitness to his seemingly miraculous recovery from a ruptured Achilles last year. But now he is showing it as a captain.
Though Maharaj has led in 53 matches across formats, including in seven ODIs and five T20Is, the DSG role has presented an opportunity to make a high-profile team his own, and he has embraced the challenge wholeheartedly. "I love captaining. I find it brings a different perspective, gives me a sense of calm on the field and makes me think clearly, even about my own game," he says.
Maharaj is known for his cricket mind, but he says he leads through a combination of knowledge and instinct. "I am a 'feel' captain," he says. "I do a lot of homework in terms of understanding certain types of players and ebbs and flows, but I also rely a lot off the feel I get off the wicket in terms of trying to read stuff
"It's also about making sure my players are in the right frame of mind to execute and know how to work on various situations. I take the time to observe people and how they are and learn those people skills, because I believe characters will win me trophies and not skill."
That's an interesting observation from someone involved in a sport that is skills-based, on multiple levels. For batters, cricket is about shot selection, changing gears, and these days, power-hitting. For bowlers, variations in deliveries and pace are essential. Maharaj says none of that is as important as what players can do when it's crunch time.
"Character wins you championships, skill wins you games. So in pressure moments, you want the character to come out, not the skill. Can the character deliver under pressure? Probably yes. Can the skill deliver under pressure? Probably not. That's my philosophy."
Rewind to the 50-over World Cup last year. South Africa were playing Pakistan, ten days after their humbling defeat to Netherlands. Chasing 271, South Africa needed 11 off 27 balls when the final pair of Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi, neither of whom is known for his batting, came together. Shamsi outside-edged and ran as though his life depended on it to get off the mark, kept a Haris Rauf yorker out, and saw off Mohammad Wasim's searing seam. Maharaj resisted his natural urge to attack and faced 20 balls for just three runs before turning Mohammad Nawaz behind square to score the boundary that sealed the win. Character, not skill, got South Africa home. And that's the kind of approach Maharaj has tried to get out of DSG this season.
"We've got a strong bunch of characters this year," he says. Heinrich Klaasen, hardened from a bout of Covid-19 that severely affected his health and being dropped from the Test team (he has since retired from the format), scored 85 off 35 balls to give DSG their opening win in a rain-affected game against MI Cape Town. Medium-pacer Junior Dala, benched for the bulk of the campaign, seized the opportunity when given and took 5 for 26 to as DSG beat Pretoria Capitals by eight runs. Others, like Matthew Breetzke, DSG's leading run-scorer, who is now knocking on the door of the South African side, and Marcus Stoinis and Nicholas Pooran have all contributed to DSG's success.
It's a complete turnaround from their inaugural campaign, in which they finished fifth out of six teams, winning only four matches. Although they had strong batters in Quinton de Kock and Klaasen, their bowling misfired and none of their bowlers were among the top 15 wicket-takers.
This season DSG have picked a more streamlined squad, retaining their batting core but refining their bowling stocks, and have four wicket-takers in the top ten.
"There is more clarity in what we are trying to achieve as a unit," Maharaj says. "The combinations we've got this year are a lot more balanced. And the one thing we've done this year is played well at home."
DSG have won four of their five home games - and the hearts and minds of Durban's fans, who have been recently apathetic to cricket but have flocked to a revamped Kingsmead to watch them.
"A lot of guys from other teams have come and said Durban is up there with the top two best atmospheres in the SA20, from a vibe [point of view] and the crowd," Maharaj says. "The perception of Durban has changed, uniquely. A lot of guys used to come there and be like, 'Urgh, Durban.' And now a lot of guys want to come back here.
"We've got good people and Durban is probably the most relaxed place out of the provinces in South Africa. It's basically mini-India. Everyone who has come across has fitted in really well and we've got a good culture in our dressing room."
Unlike some of the other franchises (Eastern Cape aside, who are coached by a local, Adrian Birrell), DSG's support staff is built on Durbanites - Lance Klusener and Jonty Rhodes are the head coach and fielding coach respectively and their yin and yang have helped mould the team's approach.
"Lance is very relaxed and doesn't give too much away. He is a poker face-type guy and knows how to keep a sense of calm. I don't think much flusters him. I had the privilege of working for a long period of time in the domestic set-up and he is probably the reason why I am sitting here today, playing for South Africa and being a captain. He showed me what it is like to kick on and be a professional," Maharaj says.
"And then you get Jonty, who is just a bundle of energy. I don't think that guy shuts down. He is like espresso in a human body. If you're having a down day, he is walking on that field during a time-out, giving his contagious energy to guys. They always say local boys know the conditions the best, and they also draw crowds."
And so does Maharaj, who embodies the spirit of Durban by championing it as home. "For me, Durban is the best place to be. I don't see myself anywhere else in the world or in the country. It's been nice to be the local boy leading the team."
He was offered the captain's job at a time when he feared he might not be retained in the set-up. "I was injured at the time - about four months post-op and I was trying to find out if I am going to be kept in the side, and they [the RPSG group, who own the Super Giants franchise] were like, 'We want to have a Zoom call.' I thought, 'Oh god, what is this about,' and then Dr Goenka [team owner Sanjiv Goenka] said, 'We want you to lead the side.' It was something that also gave me motivation to get back on the field again."

****

Maharaj looked like he had been struck by a lightning bolt.
He was celebrating the wicket of Kyle Mayers in a Test against West Indies last March when he abruptly fell to the ground with what was later discovered to be a ruptured Achilles. Did he think he would never play again?
"It did cross my mind. But I think I got over it very quickly when I said to myself, 'I need to play the World Cup.'"
The tournament was six months away. Typically it takes nine months to a year to completely recover from an injury that serious, but Maharaj was not going to let convention dictate his career. "I would have been shattered if I didn't get there [to the World Cup], but I wanted to give myself the best chance of being there. It would have hurt but that was extra motivation."
Maharaj made sure he was ready not only for the tournament but also for South Africa's preparatory series against Australia the month before. At the World Cup itself, he was South Africa's third-highest wicket-taker, behind Gerald Coetzee and Marco Jansen, and had their best economy rate. He was instrumental to their win over Pakistan and their run to the last four, and was crestfallen that they could not take two steps further to the trophy.
"I wanted to have that fairy-tale story, but getting to the semi-final was a huge thing," he says. "It was not meant to be but the cricket we played was phenomenal. We went down with a fight. And we were well received when we came back and hopefully we can build on that."
For him, the outcome is only a dream deferred. "If South Africa want me, I am going to try and go for as long as possible, especially up until the 2027 World Cup. That's my first goal. Hopefully they won't look past me and I can still put in performances that warrant a place there, and then we will assess from there. Hopefully we can play the next three ICC events because I will feel very unfulfilled if I don't win a World Cup."
Maharaj turned 34 on Wednesday and believes he has six years of international cricket left in him and more in the domestic game. "I want to play international cricket until I'm 40. And then I still want to play the domestic game as long as I can - maybe a year or two after my international career. I believe as a South African contracted player I have a duty and fulfilment to make our system stronger and better."
He also has plans beyond that. "I'd love to be a spin coach who not only works on the technical aspect but also the mental approach towards the pressures of being a spinner because we are the easiest target in cricket teams," he says. "I want to make sure I am fighting for spinners to be the first selection in the team - at least one. I believe every condition around the world demands a spinner. A spinner is an asset in any team and I still believe you need a relative amount of control in T20 cricket because if you find a pot of gold in the wicket, you need someone who can be there consistently."
He said those words with a face like sunshine.

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