Why England must beware South Africa's spin twins

·4 min read
An image of South African spinners, Simon Harmer and Keshav Maharaj, posing for the camera
An image of South African spinners, Simon Harmer and Keshav Maharaj, posing for the camera

In Test cricket history, no team has been less welcoming to spinners than South Africa. Spin bowlers bowl a lower share of overs for South Africa than for any of the other 11 Test nations. Since South Africa’s brief embrace of wrist spin at the start of the 20th century, pace bowlers have been their weapon of choice, with spinners largely considered a means to increasing the over rate.

But in the first test of their home series against Bangladesh in April, a funny thing happened. In the second innings, Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer, South Africa’s spin twins, bowled throughout the innings unchanged, sharing all 10 wickets. South Africa’s vaunted pace bowlers did not bowl a single ball between them. Even more remarkably, the two managed the same feat in the second innings of the final Test of the series.

From Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock through to Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn, South Africa’s Test opponents are familiar with the menace of their pace attack. But while Kagiso Rabada and company maintain this rich legacy, South Africa also have a spin attack to exploit a hot, dry summer. Indeed, both Maharaj and Harmer - albeit from only seven Tests - have lower Test averages than Jack Leach.

There is a real possibility that South Africa will pick two specialist spinners in a Test at some stage this series, which would be the first time that they have done so away to England since 1960. Maharaj and Harmer are not merely two fine bowlers; they also possess distinct, contrasting threats.

Most obviously, Maharaj is a left-arm finger spinner while Harmer is an off-spinner. This contrast is reflected in their records, with Maharaj having a preference for right-handers and Harmer faring better against left-handers. Maharaj - who bowls a little slower - generates more drift, while Harmer generates more turn. “They both plan meticulously,” says Robin Peterson, a left-arm spinner for South Africa from 2002-14 who is now head coach for the domestic team Warriors. “They’re deep thinkers around their skill and their art.” Maharaj is 32 and Harmer 33; both are in their prime.

After taking two seven-wicket hauls in the series against Bangladesh, taking his overall Test haul to 150 wickets at 30.7 apiece, Maharaj was poised to begin the series as South Africa’s number one spinner. That might well still prove the case, but South Africa’s thinking might be affected by England Lions’s treatment of Maharaj at Canterbury: he took 1-169 from 22 overs. Maharaj has not enjoyed his previous encounters with Ben Stokes or Joe Root in Tests - he averages 73.7 against Stokes and 101 against Root - but is a better bowler now; he has also thrived against Jonny Bairstow, dismissing him five times in five Tests at a cost of 15.4 apiece. Harmer’s cause is boosted by his deep knowledge of English conditions and outstanding county record - 354 wickets at 20.7 for Essex since 2017, including 46 scalps this summer.

Keshav Maharaj of South Africa celebrates the wicket of Mominul Haque, captain of Bangladesh during day 4 of the 1st ICC WTC2 Betway Test match between South Africa and Bangladesh at Hollywoodbets Kingsmead Stadium on April 03, 2022 in Durban, South Africa - Getty Images Europe
Keshav Maharaj of South Africa celebrates the wicket of Mominul Haque, captain of Bangladesh during day 4 of the 1st ICC WTC2 Betway Test match between South Africa and Bangladesh at Hollywoodbets Kingsmead Stadium on April 03, 2022 in Durban, South Africa - Getty Images Europe

Yet whoever plays at Lord’s, South Africa’s spinners will pose a threat of a completely different order to New Zealand’s earlier this summer. Ajaz Patel’s two overs at Lord’s were the only two bowled by a specialist spinner for the Black Caps all series.

The resurgence of South African spin is not confined to Maharaj and Harmer: left-arm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi took 5-24 to seal the Twenty20 series in England earlier this summer. These bowlers are the fruits of how the culture in South African cricket has changed. “There has been a mentality shift and more of an understanding of the importance of the art,” Peterson believes, tracing this back to South Africa picking three spinners in the 2011 World Cup.

Leg spinner Imran Tahir, who made his international debut in 2011 after moving from Pakistan, was the first South African spinner since readmission to be embraced as an attacking weapon. Peterson credits Tahir with helping change beliefs about spin: “he created a spin legacy.”

South African spinners might also be unlikely beneficiaries of climate change, which is rendering wickets drier. “Our conditions have changed dramatically since I started playing cricket," says Peterson. "What you have now in South Africa is venues that offer spin bowlers a lot more than when I started.” In first-class cricket last year, South African spinners bowled 34 per cent of overs, the highest since records began in 2006.

And so the weeks ahead promise to be a glimpse of the future for teams playing against South Africa. To beat the Proteas, sides have always needed to overcome their ferocious pace bowling. Now, they need to deal with their potent spinners too.