CAPE TOWN – ALL the talk in the build-up to the first Test against India here at Newlands has been about how India’s much-vaunted batting line-up are going to handle the pace and hostility from the South African seamers.
Coupled with a greener-than-usual surface at the foot of Table Mountain, the tourists are preparing for a full-on pace assault from the Proteas.
The South African selectors have also showed their hand with the inclusion of Dale Steyn and Chris Morris alongside the quartet of Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander who destroyed Zimbabwe in just two days last week.
India have also traditionally suffered bruising defeats in South Africa due to the dominance of Proteas fast bowlers, with the tourists winning just two of out of 19 Tests played here since 1992.
The common belief is that India will seek relief from the pace barrage when South Africa eventually turn to their left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj. Having been reared on a diet of left-arm spinners, the Indians could indeed attack Maharaj in a bid to poke holes in the Proteas gameplan especially should the home side field just three paceman as they have done in the recent past.
South Africa, though, are backing their spinner to hold his own against the subcontinent spin maestros. They expect Maharaj to perform a whole lot better than when former Proteas left-arm spinner Paul Harris toiled away for 30 overs on the final day the last time these two sides met at Newlands without any success.
“Keshav is a world class spinner, perhaps the best this country has had in a long time,” Proteas coach Ottis Gibson said earlier this week.
This high praise was echoed by Proteas new-ball bowler Vernon Philander.
“Keshav has an amazing record and I think he’s going to settle in well with the three seamers that he has working with him,” Philander said.
“He’s a world class bowler and he’s been bowling well for 24 months. I can’t see that changing any time soon.”
Maharaj has certainly been a revelation since making his Test debut against Australia at Perth at the end of 2017. Even that selection was a surprise considering South Africa have always looked to play an all-seam attack at the Waca, but it proved to be an inspiring choice with the 28-year-old picking up Australian captain and World No 1 batsman Steve Smith as his maiden Test wicket.
Despite not playing a single Test on the subcontinent or in the Caribbean as yet, where spinners are expected to thrive in the conditions, Maharaj has still raced to 56 Test wickets at a very neat average of 25.03. He is the fastest South African spinner to reach the milestone post unity.
In this period he has claimed three “five-fors”, including a first five-wicket haul on home soil last week at St George’s Park. This was a further sign of his development, and the growing trust the Proteas have in his abilities, as he was dropped for the pink-ball Test in Adelaide on the Australian tour for Tabraiz Shamsi.
In the build-up to the PE pink-ball Test, captain Faf du Plessis said that Maharaj could bowl on “grass, glass or anything!”
Equally, Maharaj is aware of the challenge that awaits him. But in his own simplistic way, he is not going to start doing anything different.
“There’s no doubt they will look to put me under pressure. They are great players of spin,” Maharaj said. “But I am really looking forward to the challenge India will provide. I will just try to keep things simple.”
Squads for Newlands:
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (captain), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Theunis de Bruyn, AB de Villiers, Dean Elgar, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Andile Phehlukwayo, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn.
India: Virat Kohli(c), Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya, Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Parthiv Patel, Jasprit Bumrah.
Start: 10:30am, TV: SS2, Sabc 3, Radio: Sabc Radio2000