Someone joked on Sunday evening that Bangladesh would struggle to make it to lunch at Kingsmead on Monday. He was met with scoffing and eye rolls. Yes, South Africa had reduced the visitors to 11/3 in search of a mythical target of 274 to win the first Test. But seven wickets in a session? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Turns out the joker was indeed wrong – South Africa needed less than half a session to seal victory. The match was over 55 minutes into the fifth day’s play, with Bangladesh losing 7/42 in the 13 overs they faced. Even South Africa’s media manager was wrong-footed by the rampant surge to success, greeting the virtually assembled reporters at the press conference that followed with a cheerful, “Good afternoon!” It was 11.53 am.
Bangladesh’s total of 53 was their lowest in South Africa and the lowest recorded by any team at Kingsmead. Deservedly so. Their batting was wretched. There was much to admire about the way they took the one-day series by the scruff of the neck, clinching it emphatically in a deciding match. But this was an abjectly poor performance. They looked less like players who had grown up on a steady diet of spin bowling on turning pitches, and more like the South African sides who flailed and flapped and floundered in the subcontinent in the 1990s.
Which is not take anything away from the bowlers. Both of them. The match marked the first time in South Africa’s 451 Tests that they have dismissed their opponents using only two bowlers in an innings. And the first time spinners have taken all 10 wickets in an innings for South Africa since Hugh Tayfield claimed 7/23 and Tufty Mann 3/31 against Australia in January 1950, also at Kingsmead.
Now, as then, those bowlers were an off-spinner and a left-armer: Simon Harmer and Keshav Maharaj. Harmer had 4-41 after 19 overs in the first innings, and finished with 4-104. Maharaj toiled for 37 overs in that innings but went wicketless for 65. In the second innings, Maharaj claimed 5-14 with his first 35 deliveries on his way to a haul of 7-32. Harmer took 3-21 to complete match figures of 7-136. It’s tempting to let those startling numbers shimmer on the screen uncluttered by comment, but that wouldn’t do Harmer and Maharaj justice.
Harmer, who played his first Test since November 2015, has returned from the Kolpak wilderness a vastly improved cricketer. His unbeaten 38 in the first innings was a significant contribution and easily his highest score at this level. His bowling was a delightful contradiction in terms: whoever heard of attacking off-spin? And yet there he was, bristling to take the game to all who faced him. Doubtless, he will keep in a special place in his memory the delivery that turned and bounced and nailed the top of Najmal Hossain Shanto’s off-stump in the first innings.
Maharaj had only good things to say about his fellow slow poisoner: “He’s good to have in the changeroom, he’s lots of fun, he’s got good ideas, and he’s matured a lot as a cricketer. You can see that in the way that he’s bowling. It’s world-class in terms of his shape on the ball, his trajectories, his lines, his lengths. And also the way he thinks about things on the field, which is quite remarkable and an asset to this team.”
How did Maharaj feel about the first innings, when he worked as hard as Harmer but had no success? “I’ve played a lot of cricket at Kingsmead and I know you’re not going to take wickets all the time,” Maharaj said. “I was in a good space in terms of the way the ball was coming out. It does get frustrating not being rewarded, but having a world-class performer at the other end is good.”
His reward was waiting in the second innings. Only Vernon Philander, twice, Jacques Kallis and Tayfield have claimed a Test five-for for South Africa in fewer deliveries. Any thoughts Bangladesh might have entertained about winning, drawing, or even not disappearing in a clatter of wickets vanished in the fifth over of the innings, when Maharaj clean-bowled first-innings centurion Mahmudul Joy Hasan and trapped Mominul Haque in front four balls apart. To remove Yasir Ali, he produced a jewel that cut a curve through the air towards the batter before pitching and then spat away to fell off stump. The shock of that ball was compounded by the facts that it gave Maharaj figures of 5-14 and that, because of it, Bangladesh were suddenly 26 for 6.
That made Dean Elgar happy: “The style of captaincy I’m trying to expose our players to, and get them familiar with how I want to play, is about positive, ruthless cricket; making bold decisions and taking players out of their comfort zones. That’s my gut feel. It’s not influenced by the coaching staff. They allow me to do me during game time.”
Then he said something, about his decision to stick to spin in the second innings, that jarred with the accepted South African way of cricket: “I could have bowled a seamer, but I wanted the guys to be ruthless.” A South Africa captain preferring spin over seam to get the job done? Against Asian opponents? At home? Woulda thunk it?
There was more of Elgar’s idea of leadership to be gleaned during Bangladesh’s first innings on the third morning after he dropped a straightforward slip catch that Litton Das had offered off Lizaad Williams. Elgar summarily consigned himself to mid-off and installed Keegan Petersen at slip. “If you want to win games you’ve got to put your ego aside and do what’s best for the side,” Elgar said.
The result was South Africa’s first win in their last five Tests on Kingsmead’s slower, turning pitches, and only their second in their 10 most recent Durban Tests. It is the first time Elgar has celebrated victory in his five Tests here. He was also on the losing side at Kingsmead in March last year, when the Dolphins beat the Titans by an innings in the first-class final. Elgar top-scored with 16 in the Titans’ first innings – of 53, exactly the same sorriness Bangladesh capitulated for on Monday. “I’ve caught quite a few hidings at Kingsmead,” Elgar noted with a smile.
Much has been made of the defection of South Africa’s first-choice pace attack to the IPL, but how much would they have been called on to do considering the conditions and the way the match unfolded? “If we were on the Highveld playing one spinner would have been the only option, but you’re playing in Durban,” Elgar said. “How awesome was it to see two spinners bowling in tandem, and have the ball on a string and dominate the opposition? It was something we’ve always wanted to see. It was great to see both of them compete at such a high level. Most batting line-ups would have had a tough task against both of them. Even if the IPL guys were available, Keshav and ‘Harmy’ would have bowled most of our overs. The skill and intensity they brought was amazing to witness.”
That’s not to suggest Elgar isn’t a real South African: “It’s not the style of cricket we’re used to or want to play. But it shows a lot of character with regards to adapting to being put in situations or conditions that you’re not familiar with. We have the resources to adapt. We still want to play the Highveld kind of cricket, where you’re playing three seamers and a world-class spinner, where fast bowling is our prime source of attack.”
Elgar had plenty of praise for Harmer and Maharaj, but the latter – whose home ground is Kingsmead – would be forgiven for feeling a little bleak at his captain’s outright preference for pitches that lean towards the quicks. “I love playing at Kingsmead,” Maharaj said. “Our record here is not great, so I was happy that I could help change that mindset and make everyone want to come and play more cricket at Kingsmead.
“I know it’s not the traditional South African pitch you would play a subcontinental team on, but it’s good to see that we have the adaptability to cross the line in most instances.”
Harmer and Maharaj are likely to get another chance to prove their point in the second Test, which starts on Friday at St George’s Park, where the pitch is similar to Kingsmead’s. Elgar is unlikely to change his mind even if the spinners take all 20 wickets, but there’s no harm in trying.