Proteas left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj feels leadership opportunity has served as a stimulus to refine his skills and brought the best out of him. He ascribes the leading role as the main factor in his return to the One-Day International team.
After warming the benches and being on the fringes since 2018, Maharaj took the field against Australia in the summer and played a pivotal role in a 3-0 drubbing to Australia.
Proteas top-flight spinner bowled economically and stymied the run flow at crucial junctures of the games. Thereon, he was selected for ODI tour to India that was cut short due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Coming on the back of impressive performances as a captain and leader of the spin attack for the franchise Hollywoodbets Dolphins — a team Maharaj spearheaded to the Momentum One-Day Cup win has improved his overall game.
He played 10 games and finished the tournament with an average that a bowler would gleefully accept - 14.68 - and he was the fourth-highest wicket-taker with a tally of 16 wickets. On top of that, he scored at an average of 50 with the bat.
“I wouldn’t say my approach has been too different, I would say the added responsibility of captaincy has helped,” he said.
“I always wanted to bail the team out of situations, win the game with the bat at the end or give the team a chance to win, so that has helped me.”
Maharaj debuted in 2017 against England in the ODI series and while reflecting back on his journey, he thinks a lot has changed with regards to South Africa's brand of game and tactics.
“Making my debut in 2017 against England I had to work out and develop my plan of how I was going to go about ODI cricket since my Test debut,” he remarked.
“The experience for me was very good being drafted back into the ODI side.
“I remember I was sat down and asked what I needed to do to get back into the ODI side and I got told that apart from the bowling, I also needed to work on my batting," Maharaj said.
In a bid to fulfil the requirements of South Africa's think-tank, Maharaj worked on his batting and calling the shots helped him hone his skills.
He has always been an accurate bowler who doesn't give much room to manoeuvre the ball into the gaps and his subtle variations help him keep things tight.
“I went back to domestic cricket, I was fortunate enough to have been made captain of the team, which helped me gain some responsibility on my shoulders. I managed to get some scores with the bat.
“It obviously is a different dynamic to when I first debuted. I think aggression is different, the way we go about games has changed, so obviously it is exciting.
“You have a younger leader (Quinton de Kock) who with youth brings in a lot of flair, so that’s the one aspect that’s changed a lot.”
Maharaj was considered suitable for the Tests in his early part of the career and it was difficult for him to change the perception of team management that he might not adapt to shorter formats.
The 'tag' of being a Test match player only irked the 30-year-old but he channelled his anger into motivation for working hard on his batting and bowling and proving the naysayers wrong.
“That (opinion) was extremely frustrating for me because I really felt as though as I was branded at the start of my career as a white-ball spinner and then things changed,” Maharaj lamented.
“I went back to domestic cricket and I really worked as hard as I could in terms of the white-ball aspect and then luckily enough I was handed another opportunity to play white-ball cricket again.”
The lure of Twenty20 cricket is hard to resist for a modern-day cricketer because of the greater financial rewards and heightened interest from the spectators. Maharaj eyes breaking into T20 side but he understands that he would have to prove his mettle in the ODI format first.
“I still do want to break into the T20 set-up, but I know that I first have to bide my time in the ODI side and more so in the Test side where I do need to score more runs.
“That will help my chances of selection. I also want to do better than last season, then I know that I am on the right track. If I can help the team reach the No. 1 ranking that’s the big target across all formats," he concluded.