For a nation that boasts over producing some of the greatest fast bowlers of the game, it is quite unusual or rather, difficult for a spinner from South Africa to make a name for himself at the international stage. Though the likes of Nicky Boje and Paul Adams have proven to be a surprise element in the ever-fiery South African bowling attack, not many after them have managed to leave a mark.
However, a young Keshav Maharaj seemed to exhibit his skills with ease in the first Test against Australia in Perth, leaving the fans to ponder why he didn't make it to the national team a lot earlier. The left-arm spinner from Durban made his debut in Perth against the Aussies and immediately made his presence felt with figures of 3/56 in the first innings, which included the prize scalp of Steven Smith.
However, not many know the fact that the emerging South African superstar was once steaming in hard in the nets to bowl as fast as he could. During an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Keshav's father Athmanand Maharaj took us through the journey of the young spinner and how India still holds a special place in his family's hearts.
Athmanand's words regarding his son's selection in the team came in as a proud father who couldn't have asked for more from his son. "We were very excited. The moment when Cricket South Africa came asking for Keshav's passport in order to send him with the national team for the tour of Australia, we actually broke down. And to see him on television playing for the nation brought tears in our eyes and to be fair the call came in at the right time. He (Keshav) had worked really hard and deserved the opportunity to take a shot at the international level," he said.
Keshav learnt from Pakistani and Indian cricketers
Taking us back in time, Athmanand revealed that Keshav didn't really start off as a spin bowler. He recalled that as a two-year-old kid, Keshav used to be the chubby little boy who would run in to bowl with all that he could. However, being a provisional cricketer, Athmanand could soon sense something peculiar about his son. He said, "During a coaching session one day, I gave him a bucket of balls and told him to try spinning the ball. After a few sessions, he adapted himself very well and we didn't stop him thereafter."
"When he became a little older, around the age of 12, he got an opportunity to bowl to the Pakistani and the Indian cricketers when they were on their tour of South Africa. He learnt a lot from that experience and the players too helped him a lot," he said.
Fitness helped him become a better player
Keshav made his first-class debut at the age of 16 and started slowly yet steadily making a mark. He was in high school back then and cricket was something he was passionate about. However, it wasn't until the age of 22 that he took the game a bit more seriously. His father said that between the age of 23 to 25, Keshav worked really hard on his fitness. He watched his diet and concentrated a lot more on fitness during his stint in England.
He said, "Between the age of 23 to 25 he concentrated a lot on his fitness and became a lot more fitter. It was during this time that he started to make an impact and helped his franchise in doing well. The national selectors kept track of his records and followed him closely then."
Kumble, Boje and Paul Harris played an important role
Having been Keshav's primary coach, Athmanand said that his cricketing experience helped Keshav regarding the flight of the ball, the length and other aspects of spin bowling. He also stated that Indian cricketers Kiran More and Anil Kumble played an important role in Keshav's early part of the career as a spinner.
"He had the opportunity of rubbing shoulders with Anil Kumble and Kiran More when the Indian team was touring the South Africans. Kumble gave him some valuable advice regarding the pace of the bowl and asked him to concentrate on being somewhere close to the 90kmh mark to ensure he had control over the play," he said.
Athmanand also said that the likes of Nicky Boje and Paul Harris too played a part in shaping up his son, Keshav, as an efficient spinner.
On his relationship with India, Athmanand said that his great great grandfather was a native of Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh. He also mentioned about how he had come to Srinagar in the 1970s to pursue a degree in dentistry, however, missed on the opportunity as the weather didn't suit him pretty well.
I was his biggest critic, says Keshav Maharaj’s father
The senior Maharaj also revealed that he was the biggest critic of Keshav during his young days in cricket. Though he had sacrificed his cricket career for his son, he made sure that his son could pursue his dream with no ordeal. He said, "I used to be the biggest critic of his game. Whenever he played a game and got out playing a poor shot, we used to have chat about it later that day."
"I used to tell him to be a disciplined cricketer and warned him that if he was looking to go far with his game then he must stop giving his wicket away cheaply," he said.
Keshav would love to play in IPL
He also said that he would be very happy to see him in the Indian Premier League and said that Keshav would definitely grab at the opportunity if at all he got one. An ecstatic Athmanand said, "Oh definitely! Keshav would love to play in the IPL. He was in India a couple of seasons ago playing the Champions League and would surely look at an opportunity to play there again."
"He is a good batsman too and is capable of scoring runs quickly. When in Durban, he has a go at the bowlers with the bat in the shortest format of the game. I see him as a bowling all-rounder. And I am sure he will do well in the IPL if given an opportunity," he said.
Having had a pretty good start to his international career, it would be no surprise if the young South African spinner, Keshav Maharaj, turns out be in the list of some of the most successful Protea spinners over the next few years.