The future of South African cricket could be in a spin
In the build-up to South Africa’s Test series against Bangladesh, former Proteas batter Ashwell Prince was asked if he saw the hosts picking more than one spinner in the two matches because it would be played at Durban and Gqeberha, two ‘low and slow' venues.
Prince – a batting consultant with Bangladesh during their tour of New Zealand in January – answered the question with another. What would the visitors prefer, he asked, a barrage of pace and bounce or the spin they’ve been weaned on?
As it turned out, the fast stuff didn’t faze them half as much as the spin did, with South Africa’s twirlers Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer claiming a combined 29 of the 40 Bangladeshi wickets that fell, 20 of them in the fourth innings of the two matches.
Fourteen of Maharaj’s 16 wickets were seven-wicket hauls in the successive fourth innings of two Test matches, a first in Test cricket. South Africa’s use of Maharaj and Harmer as the only two bowlers in these consecutive fourth innings – which were 19 and 23.3 overs long – was not exactly common (certainly not in the country).
Captain Dean Elgar’s judicious use of the experienced left-arm orthodox Maharaj and off-spinner Harmer promises to be a game changer for the Proteas. The two are as different as two men can be.
The wiry Maharaj bears more than a passing resemblance to an accountant and bowls with the miserliness of one. Harmer, who possesses the physique and temperament of a fast bowler, has settled for drift, turn and the occasional word in the batter’s ear to do his bidding.
Whatever the approaches of the two, their deadly combination has a cricketing public, raised on the heavy metal of fast bowling, taken aback.
The one man who isn’t entirely surprised is Robin Peterson, a former Proteas left-arm spinner with big-hitting tendencies like “Shots” Maharaj.
“I did see it coming,” he said. “We’re talking about two quality spin bowlers, guys that have experience, have bowled a lot [of] overs and have a great work ethic. So I did see it coming … or let me rather say I’m not surprised it happened.
“Keshav’s done it at Test level for a while and Harmer’s accumulated enough experience to know what to do in different situations. They’re both quality; Simon could get seven if he bowls at more left-handers and Kesh probably got seven because he was bowling at more right-handers, it depends on how they want to attack the opposition.
“In the [T20] World Cup we played three spinners. It all depends on your coach, your systems and how you view spin bowling.”
Peterson attributed the need to involve spinners to three factors: “Our conditions have changed a lot, it’s spinning a lot in Durban, St George’s and Cape Town. When I started, you could count on Cape Town and St George’s. Now there are a lot of venues where spinners can be confident in what they’re doing.
“Also DRS [the Decision Review System] has brought finger spinners into the game a lot more now. You’ve seen it with Hawk-eye: when I started a guy would run forward, you’d hit the front pad and they’d say he’s well forward. Now umpires have the confidence to say you’re out.
“Also, our premier fast bowlers being away opened this new avenue, which may not necessarily have been the case had everybody been available to play. Now there’s another dimension to our attack: you can go to India and say we’ve got two spinners [who] can also bowl them out in those conditions.”
Tip of the spear
Regardless of how their deadly pairing came about, Maharaj and Harmer are the tip of the spear in the country’s spin-bowling resources. South Africa has never had so many decent – and young – spin bowlers to call upon.
Left-arm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi is the country’s premier white-ball spinner and slow left-armer Bjorn Fortuin is developing a reputation as a cool head under white-ball pressure. Off-spinner Prenelan Subrayen and wrist spinner Shaun von Berg have been consummate professionals for years now. And with Siya Mahima (Boland), Tshepo Ntuli (Knights), Junaid Dawood (Western Province), Tsepo Ndwandwa and Lizo Makhosi (both Eastern Province), and 19-year-old leg spinner Caleb Seleka (North West), there is no shortage of talent.
“There is a spin bowling explosion and T20 cricket has played a role,” Peterson explained. “You look at the top 10 bowlers in the world and most of them are spin bowlers.
“It’s not only DRS that has brought spinners back into the game, it’s T20 as well because it’s shown how important they are in any format.
“It’s almost like having a spin bowler in your bowling line-up gives you a little more street cred.”
Peterson credited a growing legacy of spin as well as the information age for the youngsters that are coming through.
“When I was coming up, we didn’t have a legacy of spin bowling or guys to look up to so you took time to gain experience. With the spin-bowling camps to India and the information age, the access to information means spin bowlers become better quicker.
“Also, the understanding of what to do, when to do it and why you’re doing it is a lot better these days. In the old days, you had to go through a whole season of trial and error; now it’s almost game to game that you can make the shift because of the available information,” he said.
Peterson ranked the country’s spin resources as the top two being Maharaj and Harmer, and a second tier that depends on what format you’re referring to, and many youngsters finding their way.
“Fortuin and Subrayen are quality, [Imran] Manack’s unorthodox … if you’re talking T20, Junaid Dawood and Shaun von Berg have done well this year. Then you’ve got Mahima, who’s performed every season in T20. It’s no coincidence that he’s always in a team challenging for a cup.
“There’s a nice stable of them now around the country; you can’t rest on your laurels.”
With the Proteas management team bucking the international trend by not having a wrist spinner in their test squad, Peterson suspected Shamsi may have been pigeonholed as a white-ball cricketer.
“But I’m not privy to the conversations behind the scenes,” he said.
The Proteas’ next assignment is a multiformat tour of England. It’s been questioned whether Maharaj and Harmer can do it on a cold night in Stoke during the Test series, which begins in August.
Harmer, who has played a significant amount of his cricket in England as a Kolpak player, has already intimated that playing that late in the English summer could mean that they’re playing on old wickets, which should be taking spin by then.
Peterson said it would depend on the type of summer in England.
“If it turns out to be a hot summer, then pitches really turn. Moeen Ali once bowled out South Africa at Lord’s late in an English summer. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they can’t both feature in a Test match. It’s a case of how they stack up on the day and what the conditions are.
“But it’s nice for them to know that they’ve added another dimension to how they get 20 wickets, which is how you win Test matches.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.