After a wicketless day during South Africa’s tour of Sri Lanka last year, then Protea spin bowling coach Claude Henderson woke up to a midnight thud on his door. He opened, groggy-eyed, only to see Keshav Maharaj bowling to the team video analyst in the hotel corridor. One of his deliveries had slipped out of the fingers and banged his door.
South Africa’s figurehead spinner, some reckon he’s the best to have emerged from the country since reintegration, had endured a torrid wicketless day on what was a typical turner and he couldn’t sleep. Seeing the coach, he posed him an existential query which several, even more famous spin-bowling predecessors have wondered: “Why can’t I get wickets in conditions that I’m supposed to get wickets?”
After all, before his first exposure to Asian conditions, he had wreaked havoc, among the least spinner-friendly climes, Dunedin and Wellington, and had left Australia and England with his reputation enhanced, a four-for at Lord’s, a three-for at Perth, three apiece in two innings in Nottingham. But here, in the subcontinent, he was, cutting a forlorn, flaccid figure.
The coach had no answers, he merely told him to catch some sleep and shut the door, though inwardly he felt quite chuffed at his ward’s alacrity. Later, he told in a press conference: “That was the night I saw a fire raging him in.” That fire raged on and consumed 16 wickets in his next three outings, including a best of 9/129, the best by any South African. Typically, he played down the record and offered a disclaimer: “I think I’m still a beginner, and have to perform consistently here to say that I have cracked the code (of bowling in Asia). Maybe, India next year.”
Those words seemed prophetic, as he endured a difficult Test in Vizag, where he resembled a worn-out imitation of the resurgent spinner he was in Sri Lanka, especially in the first innings.
As much as the hideous figures of 5 wickets for 318 runs, bleeding 5.86 runs in the second innings, on the fourth day, where the spinners are expected at least to stem the run-flow, the benevolence of his bowling is what would rankle him. Though there were sporadic instances of that raging fire within him blazing, like the Rohit Sharma dismissal in the first innings, one of the few instances he combined flight, drift and bite off the surface, he was more often bland and unimaginative, as if being the lead spinner was an immovable burden.
So much so that his mind seemed as cluttered as his action. He seemed like just lumbering in and bowling—he wasn’t getting any body into his action, which naturally hampered the pivot that’s fundamental to a finger spinner’s action. This meant he was hardily purchasing any turn, he is not a massive turner, but here he wasn’t getting any whatsoever. His arms weren’t coming through freely either—the action thus seemed hindered at the point of release. He wasn’t getting drift either.
While bowling faster on a slow turning surface could be beneficial if he can also make the ball turn, as had Nathan Lyon when he toured here last time, here he was merely looking to push the ball in, relying on just his fingers. Relying, primarily, on over-spin.
Battle-hardened spinners would say just one facet of spin-bowling can’t guarantee foolproof success. Overspin, for instance, could be highly beneficial on bouncier surfaces, like the one in Mumbai in 2012 when Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann tied a famed batting firm in knots. But those are exceptions than a thumb rule.
It’s an instinct rather—looking for overspin induced extra bounce. Even Lyon in his first tour to India in 2013 erred, but in his latest trip, he was a much rounded-bowler.
He developed the ability to bowl faster – more than half of his deliveries in that series were above 88km/h, where less than a quarter used to be – but, critically, he did not lose loop or dip when he sped up, which made him difficult to nullify.
Different plans vital
They, like Maharaj, can’t be entirely faulted either, for its the way they have practised their craft throughout their life, a fundamental disparity between how spin is traditionally served up in Asia and outside. What reaps rewards there doesn’t here, and vice versa. So what worked for the South African spinner on bouncier decks in Australia, England and New Zealand didn’t in Vizag. He admitted as much: “It’s probably one of the toughest surfaces I've bowled on in terms of it being a lot slower and not biting as much. You got slow turn but the ball didn't really kick off the wicket.”
It’s an identical crisis when Asian seamers travel abroad—they expect a better harvest, before they stumble on one challenge after the other. Likewise, in South Africa and Australia, finger spinners are taught the virtues of overspin, whereas in India they look to primarily undercut the ball because these are the methods that are most successful in their respective conditions.
Though there have been fine purveyors of overspin like Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, it was not overspin alone that brought them wickets, but a confluence of several niceties. Ravichandran Ashwin too can be bracketed alongside them in his consummate mastery of spin-bowling nuances and improvisations of pace and release points, awareness of lengths and speeds on a particular surface. For even among turners, there are all sorts—some are crusty, some others flaky, some offer bounce and turn, some are low and slow, some others have variable bounce, some others don’t bounce at all. Heck, the surfaces change colour in a matter of days, sometimes sessions. Each one calls for different skill-sets, thus filtering out one-dimensional spinners.
In Vizag, Maharaj was one—and then suddenly he finds himself as the focal point of his side’s attack. For much of his career he was not the primary bowler of his team, more of a stock bowler to tidy an end up while the pacemen did the bulk of the striking duties. And suddenly, you switch roles and responsibilities and end up bowling twice as many overs in insanely hot climes. The 77 overs he bowled in Vizag is the second most he has in a Test—the most he has was in Colombo wherein he expended 81.1 overs, close to an entire day’s play. It can leave the fingers battered, the mind wracked and the body drained. India’s spinners, on the other hand, are used to such shifts from the time they burst into the scene. So the biggest challenge for him will be to pose a threat to the Indian batsmen within the framework of his gifts and limitations.
It’s in times like these that South Africa would have rued the absence of a spin consultant from the subcontinent, like most other teams in the world. England and West Indies have benefitted from Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed, Sridharan Sriram, more of a batting all-rounder in his playing days, has improved Australia’s spin stock. Maharaj doesn’t have wise counsel to lean on. He might just hit the hotel corridors in unseemly hours, though keeping that inner fire raging on.