COLOMBO – “I am fatigued.” These were the first words South Africa’s record-breaking spinner Keshav Maharaj could just about muster after a lion-hearted performance on a sweltering opening day of the second and final Test here at the SSC.
Maharaj had every right to feel tired. Not only did he bowl for 32 overs – 25 of them on the trot - in a marathon spell from the Tennis Courts End, but he also claimed eight wickets – the best by a visiting spinner on Sri Lankan soil – to provide the Proteas with a semblance of hope of leveling the series.
Throughout he was the epitome of control, incisive and intelligently reducing the pace of his left-arm spin to take account of a surface slower and drier than in Galle last week.
South Africa’s ambitions of turning it all around had seemed to have dissipated in the Colombo morning heat after captain Faf du Plessis lost his successive toss, allowing the hosts to once again have the opportunity of creating scoreboard pressure.
Considering South Africa had also inexcusably selected Maharaj as the sole specialist spinner – despite Tabraiz Shamsi having travelled around the world in just on 48 hours to be available for selection – the visitors were contemplating the worst when Sri Lanka went to the lunch interval at 93 without loss.
The openers Dimuth Karunaratne and Danushka Gunathilaka had eased into their work and the “Ghosts of 2006” when Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene compiled a mammoth 624-run partnership for the third wicket against the Proteas here were certainly starting to float through the minds of the fielders.
But fortunately for South Africa, they now have a quality left-armer within their ranks – Nicky Boje went wicketless in 65 overs and conceded 221 runs in 2006 – who is adept at fine-tuning his art to suit whatever the task at hand.
Man of the moment 😍😍😍 Congratulations @keshavmaharaj16 8/116. The best figures by any touring spinner and the best figures by a South African spinner since readmission #ProteaFire pic.twitter.com/ZmXfsyHZfx
“It is different bowling longer spells here on the subcontinent than back home. The heat plays a massive factor. I was definitely fatigued at the end of my spell but South Africa have always played one spinner back home, so I am used to my role,” Maharaj said.
“I have always prepared the same for every Test match, but the last few days I pushed extremely hard to keep the momentum going from the last Test match. I personally like to be left alone and working with ‘Hendo’ (South Africa spin bowling coach Claude Henderson) and Prasanna (Agoram) after hours and showed in my performance today.”
But for all Maharaj and the rest of the bowlers hard work – there was a sole wicket for Kagiso Rabada too – the Proteas will still head to bed knowing that the half-centuries from Karunaratne, Gunathilaka and Dhananjaya de Silva allowed Sri Lanka to post a total their spinners will heartily defend.
The likes of Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Akila Dananjaya would no doubt have appreciated Maharaj’s work, but they would have sat back smiling in anticipation of their chance to bowl on a surface that is already showing appreciable turn.
“Really surprised (South Africa played only spinner),” Sri Lanka’s batting coach Tilan Samaraweera said. “I thought they might go with three pace and two spin. But they struck to their strength which is pace. I guess not having the additional spinner is good for us. When you see the scorecard, one spinner has picked up eight wickets. Probably they are short of one spinner.
“The pitch is spinning. If we bowl in the right areas, one will spin and one will go straight. That is the beauty of home advantage. Never underestimate our third spinner Akila Dananjaya as well. He is a quality bowler. I am sure all three spinners will come to play tomorrow.”