Fortuin prepares to fill the Maharaj-sized hole in the Proteas camp

Fortuin prepares to fill the Maharaj-sized hole in the Proteas camp
Bjorn Fortuin bowls for the Lions during the CSA One-Day Cup, Division 1 match against the Knights at the Wanderers on 16 December 2022. (Photo: Lee Warren / Gallo Images)

Bjorn Fortuin has the big shoes of Keshav Maharaj to fill in the Proteas white-ball teams, but a year of instrumental performances will stand the left-arm tweaker in good stead.

Bjorn Fortuin has had an outstanding past year, across formats, in domestic cricket in South Africa.

In April 2022, in the domestic One-Day Cup final, Fortuin – batting at No 8 – hit an unbeaten 62 off 57 deliveries and smashed a massive six in the final over to secure the trophy for the Lions — his domestic team.

In the inaugural season of the SA20, Fortuin was one of the standout performers for the Paarl Royals. He often opened the bowling for the Jos Buttler-led side and maintained an impressive economy rate of 6.46 throughout the tournament as well as finishing with the fifth-most wickets – 14 in all.

In a version of the game weighted heavily in favour of batters, that was a significant return.

More recently, at the end of February, Fortuin put in a stellar all-round performance in the four-day series when he scored 123 not out in the first innings and 65 in the second for the Lions. He also picked up nine wickets.

Despite impressing on every front, in each format, Fortuin has had relatively few opportunities at international level.

The Paarl-born all-rounder is a left-arm orthodox bowler and a right-handed lower-order dasher – the same role the experienced Keshav Maharaj plays.

Fortuin has only represented the Proteas on 16 occasions across T20 Internationals and One Day Internationals (ODIs) despite making his debut for the side in 2019.

Taking the opportunity

For a while in 2019 and 2020, Fortuin was seen as the Proteas’ T20 side’s second-choice spinner behind Tabraiz Shamsi, but after Maharaj started taking the format more seriously, under the guidance of former coach Mark Boucher, he quickly usurped Fortuin in the pecking order.

Bjorn Fortuin of the World Lions during a CSA One-Day Cup, Division 1 match against the Warriors at St George’s Park in Gqeberha on 21 December 2022. (Photo: Richard Huggard / Gallo Images)

In South Africa’s second Test against West Indies at the start of March, Maharaj ruptured his left achilles tendon while celebrating the wicket of Kyle Mayers.

The ill-fated injury will see the Proteas’ No 1 spin bowler, across formats, out for at least nine months.

While it is an unfortunate setback for Maharaj, it does give Fortuin an extended opportunity to vie for the role he has been the heir to for four years.

“Keshav’s a massive loss. It’s actually not really that nice to talk about,” Fortuin told the media this week.

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“Never mind his natural ability with the ball and bat, he’s got loads of experience, loads of leadership aspects. Besides the cricketing aspect, that’s something that will sorely be missed.”

Maharaj’s injury leaves a gaping hole in the side, especially as the tweaker is coming off being awarded Cricket South Africa’s player of the year for 2022.

Maharaj is also likely to miss the 2023 ODI World Cup in October and November in India. The ongoing three-match ODI series against West Indies provides further opportunity for Fortuin to cement his place on the plane.

“I wouldn’t say my name is set in stone in any way. There’s still quite a bit of cricket to be played,” he said.

“The spot that’s been opened puts the responsibility on me now, with losing Keshav, that’s a high standard that needs to be fulfilled. I just take it day by day and try to focus on the job at hand.”

All-round ability

The 28-year-old will have stiff competition for a place in the national team. Shamsi – the fifth-ranked T20 international bowler in the world – was drafted into the Proteas’ ODI set-up after Maharaj’s injury.

Keshav Maharaj in action during the second One-Day International against India in Ranchi on 9 October 2022. (Photo: Pankaj Nangia / Gallo Images)

But Fortuin has a vast amount of domestic experience to fall back on as well as one of his finest seasons with the ball to date.

“It’s been a season of firsts for me. There’s been quite a few performances that I’ve been proud of. But in saying that, it’s not something that I’m happy with and sitting on my laurels with a couple of good performances behind my back,” Fortuin said.

Read in Daily Maverick:The Bavuma-Conrad era starts brightly for the Proteas

“To come in the series with some form with bat and ball is something I’m looking forward to. It’s a big challenge playing against the West Indies, especially in white-ball cricket.”

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Fortuin contributes in every facet of the game, including in the field where he is athletic inside the inner circle and has a bullet right arm – despite being a left-handed bowler – with which he flings the ball in from the boundary rope.

“I’m trying to build on whatever I do; if it’s not up to standard I try to improve on that and if it is, see where I can raise the bar a bit,” he said.

“I do pride myself to put in performances with the bat. If I’m being honest, I feel like I let myself down over the past two seasons. I definitely set [myself] high standards, and that haven’t always been met.”

The past SA20 tournament was Fortuin’s first in a franchise league where he could compete against and rub shoulders with some of the best talent in the world.

Despite his impressive performances for the Paarl Royals, he was not selected in South Africa’s 2-1 ODI series win over England – that happened in the middle of the SA20 – while Maharaj held the mantle of No 1 orthodox spin bowler in the side.

“Looking back at the past season, it was a memorable tournament with the [Paarl] Royals. It was special being part of the first SA20,” Fortuin added.

Keshav Maharaj of the Proteas bowls during a 2022 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup match against India in Perth on 30 October 2022. (Photo: Isuru Sameera Peiris / Gallo Images)

“Even though I wasn’t involved with the [ODI] England series, I do take a lot of confidence that I put in performances for the Royals and my domestic side, the Lions as well.”

Fortuin has proven time and again that he is the man for the big occasion in domestic cricket, whether it’s opening the bowling in the powerplay against some of the world’s most destructive batters or finishing a game off with the willow with a few lusty blows.

Through some fortune on his side and misfortune on the side of Maharaj, Fortuin now has the opportunity to prove his immense ability on the big stage. DM


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