KESHAV MAHARAJ provided the glue that enabled a relatively inexperienced Standard Bank Proteas attack to keep England in check on the opening day of the fourth Test match at Old Trafford in London on Friday.
With both Vernon Philander and Chris Morris ruled out by back injuries the Proteas were forced to revert to a four-man attack as they had employed in the first Test match with Theunis de Bruyn and Duanne Olivier being named as the respective replacements.
This made it essential for Maharaj to carry a heavier load than usual for the first day of a Test to enable Faf du Plessis to rotate his three seamers from the other end. And the spinner responded perfectly, conceding less than 2 runs to the over in his 29 overs and claiming the important wicket of Alastair Cook into the bargains.
Maharaj isn’t just the best spinner the Proteas have fielded for some time but is also establishing himself as one of the best Test spinners in the world at the moment. His figures for the current calendar year compare favourably with the likes of Ashwin, Jadeja and Herath and he has the best strike rate of any of them.
Maharaj’s success enabled Du Plessis to keep his quick men fresh and this became evident when the second new ball became available. Morne Morkel, probably the pick of the seamers on the day, was unlucky not to get the key wicket of Ben Stokes when an edge flew through the vacant third slip position but then Kagiso Rabada got the left-hander with another of his deadly Yorker length deliveries.
Olivier put in a vastly improved performance on his previous outing at Trent Bridge although he still tended to be on the expensive side but his two victims included Joe Root.
It left England 260/6 at the close with Jonny Bairstow at the crease and Moeen Ali still to come of their specialist batsmen.
Just which team is on top at this stage is difficult to say. The Proteas will be happy to have taken 6 wickets and kept the England run rate below 3 all day, having lost the toss, and England are in a sound position, having had to bat through a difficult morning session and again when the second new ball became available.
As always, one will have to wait until both sides have batted to know which team has come out on top.
The fact that England had three half-century partnerships and two others of 35 or move indicated how hard the batsmen had to graft for their runs and also that the bowlers were always in with a shout.
Quinton de Kock provided the statistical highlight of the day by completing his 100 Test dismissals in only his 23rd Test, the equal second fastest of all time. He has now made 44 dismissals in the current calendar year alone which is twice as many as anybody else.
It is also worth bearing in mind that this is the most youthful team South Africa has fielded for a long time. Only four players are aged over 30 which suggests that there are still good quality young players coming through the South African domestic system.