Until Thursday, England held very good memories for Keshav Maharaj.
It was in England that he turned his life around, both privately and professionally. England had been good to Maharaj, until Thursday, the first day of the opening Test of the series.
It was arguably the most challenging period Maharaj has endured since making his debut against Australia last November. South Africa’s attack is a potent one, and very quickly Maharaj has established himself as an important component thereof.
England recognised that fact and part of their strategy for the first Test was to put Maharaj under serious pressure on the opening day of the series - something he hadn’t faced against Australia, New Zealand or Sri Lanka.
Such is the nature of the international game. Perhaps those other three sides had not gotten a proper opportunity to asses the left-arm spinner.
Joe Root and Ben Stokes used their feet very well to him, not allowing him to settle into any sort of rhythm.
In 22 overs Maharaj conceded 107 runs. He bowled just one maiden. He dismissed Root with a lovely piece of bowling and then saw the new England captain recalled to the crease because - almost criminally for a spinner - Maharaj had overstepped the front line.
And yet despite that disappointment, and despite the fact that he’d been successfully targeted by the opposition, you sense that Maharaj is the sort of philosophical character that will take the punishment dished out to him on the chin.
After all, a year ago, playing in a Test at Lord’s seemed very far away for Maharaj.
“To play any sort of cricket for your country is very special, but at a place with this distinct ethos, character ... just walking into this venue gives you goosebumps,” he said on the eve of the game.
Naturally family and friends have demanded tickets. “There are people I don’t even know asking me for tickets. It’s a sell-out crowd, and whoever I could help out I tried my best to accommodate them,” he smiled.
Some of those he helped out with tickets may not have known the importance England holds for Maharaj, for it is here, having taken an opportunity to play club cricket, that he grew up, started to take himself seriously and through that his cricket more seriously too.
“I left home in 2013 and just before that, Lance Klusener and Rivash Gobind (coaches at the KwaZulu-Natal Dolphins) sat me down. I was quite a chubby character. They told me I needed to lose a few kilos of weight.
“I thought to myself: ‘Do I really want to play cricket?’ and the answer was ‘yes.’ So then I had to make a change.
“I came to England as a 23-year-old - I was still in cotton-wool at home and that took me out of my comfort zone. I adapted really well to it, I lost 17 kilos of weight in three months, just trying to be disciplined.”
Maharaj took up a contract with Cookfield Cricket Club which plays in the Surrey leagues.
“I sacrificed a lot, which taught me a lot. It was in my personal life but those were things I could implement in my training too. That changed my life; it gave me a different outlook.
“Now I went: ‘Stop complaining if you don’t get selected, find the faults with yourself and train harder.’ I adopted that attitude.”
It’s hard to reconcile the Maharaj that plays for the Proteas with the one that embarked on that journey to England four years ago.
He took on board tips from a personal trainer, he eats nine small meals a day, foregoes bread and looks like one of the fittest players in the South African squad. Already, he’s produced some influential performances, starting with his maiden Test where Steve Smith was his first Test wicket.
“My game plan is simple, I just want to land the ball on the spot and hopefully natural variation helps me with the batsmen making mistakes, that’s how I want to try and take wickets.
“I want to keep it tight obviously. My job is to rest the fast bowlers, hold up an end, and that’s what I’ll do from now on.”
Which is precisely why the England brainstrust deemed it imperative that their batsmen targeted him.
Maharaj has taken 26 wickets in the seven Tests he’s played, and his economy rate of 2.71 is as important as those wickets for it allows his captain to control the game at one end in the knowledge that the fast bowlers can attack at the other.
Nevertheless, Maharaj already has two ‘five-fors’ to his name and Test best figures of 6/40 against New Zealand in Wellington.
“In New Zealand I got wickets because of the fast bowlers. They bowled extremely well. They bowled with such control and at extreme pace in those spells that someone had to try and take the spinner on and that worked in my favour.”
A performance like that naturally raises expectations, not just from the public but even more so the player too.
“There are obviously expectations. But my job is to keep it simple, hold up an end, and if I pick up a wicket here and there, great, but my main job is to let the fast bowlers strike.”
Maharaj has not been afraid to consult outside of the trainers in the SA squad and has called on former Proteas left-arm spinner Paul Harris for guidance. But Maharaj doesn’t share Harris’s penchant for sledging saying there are different ways to show aggression
“I’m a different character to Paul, but each of us bring a different set of skills to the party. That’s what makes our team so unique.”
Maharaj has emerged victorious in five of his seven Tests. The eighth has turned into a struggle. But there’s still a role for him to play and he’ll do so while snacking on something healthy.