When Keshav Maharaj first saw Rangana Herath at close quarters, Herath was unable to impose himself on the series. Although in the lead up to Sri Lanka’s tour of South Africa in 2016-17, Maharaj had identified Herath as one of his leading spin-bowling influences, he wound up with better returns than the senior man across the three Tests – taking seven wickets at an average of 30.28, to Herath’s six at 48.
South Africa had gone out of their way to neutralise Herath on that tour, stating publicly that they had asked for pitches that would not crumble, which partly explain Herath’s modest performances. But now, in Sri Lanka, where tracks are designed to have the opposite effect – to exacerbate Herath’s threat, Maharaj has a chance to watch the master left-arm spinner in his natural habitat, and perhaps pick up a few tricks.
“I think Herath’s consistency in phenomenal,” Maharaj said. “Left-arm spinners are known to control the game, but he does something special – he turns the ball at will and slides the ball on at will. It’s something that I’d love to learn in my trade and get some knowledge from him. I did speak to him in South Africa, and he did give me some insight, but I’d like to pick his brain more about playing in subcontinent conditions, because he’s the best in the world at what he does.”
What Herath does on Sri Lankan pitches, Maharaj felt, was consistently put balls in good areas. Maharaj had been modest in the first innings in Galle, going wicketless in 17 overs, but seemed to gain some confidence in the second innings, in which he took 4 for 58, dismissing four of Sri Lanka’s top five. “I think on these wickets, as long as you’re putting the ball in the right area with energy on the ball, what happens on the wicket you have no control over,” Maharaj said. “We don’t know when the ball is going to spin excessively or not. You’ve basically got to put the right ingredients into the wicket and whatever happens from there is in God’s hands.
“Wherever you play in the world, you want to be consistent in your lengths and cause the batter to be uncomfortable when you’re bowling at him. That’s something I had to pick up after the first innings. Obviously I didn’t have a bit of rhythm, but then I found it in the second innings, and I put the ball in much better areas than I did.”
Now that Maharaj’s spin partner Tabraiz Shamsi has returned to the squad, after attending to a family matter at home at the start of the week, South Africa have the option of fielding the same five bowlers at SSC. The five-bowler combination does put a little more pressure on the lower order, however, who will be expected to score runs. At Galle, Sri Lanka’s tailenders had batted well alongside a senior partner to change the complexion of the match, the last two wicket stands adding 111 to the team score.
“I put more pressure on myself than anyone else does to score runs,” Maharaj said. “I need to contribute in the lower order. We saw the partnership of Suranga Lakmal and Lakshan Sandakan towards the end – they put on a 100-run partnership and it makes a difference in the Test match. In terms of game plans I’m just trying to keep it simple. I like attacking spinners, but I’ve got to back my defence against them at the same time.”