© Getty Images
Keshav Maharaj is the first specialist spinner to make his Test debut at Perth © Getty Images

What makes a dream debut? Was it the way Bob Massie or Narendra Hirwani had broken through to the Test arena, with 8 wickets in an innings? Or were the debuts of Lawrence Rowe and Yasir Hameed more emphatic, for they had smashed two tons in their first Tests, the first of Rowe’s hundreds being a double? Bruce Taylor, on the other hand, had combined the two efforts, and had secured probably the greatest debut feat in Test history. One may make a case for Yajurvindra Singh as well, for his 7 catches, during which he equalled two world records. And then there were the unfortunate men, Gobo Ashley and ‘Father’ Marriott and Andy Ganteaume and Rodney Redmond… FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: Australia vs South Africa, 1st Test at Perth

Keshav Maharaj has not done any of that. His was not a dream debut by any standards. Of course, there have worse debuts, even for the greatest (Don Bradman, for example), but Maharaj did nothing that would motivate a boy to push himself that extra bit towards a Test cap. His appearance is deceptive, certainly not indicative of a man by that surname (which translates to ‘The Great King’ in North Indian languages). He is thin, almost too frail for someone who loves his food, blogs about it, and has even talked about food on local radio. His body language is boyish, probably a bit too boyish for a 26-year-old (Sachin Tendulkar had a decade of Test cricket behind him at his age). But then, he makes up for all of that with his indistinguishable enthusiasm.

Mind you, the moment Maharaj had already fulfilled at least one dream when he was handed that Test cap. His father Athmanand could never break through the barriers to make it to the top level; his career coincided with the last days of the Apartheid-dominated era, and his wicketkeeping remained confined to Natal B.

Athmanand wanted his son to be a cricketer. The hopes, in true Bollywood style, were kindled when Kiran More looked read the palms of a three-year-old Keshav and had predicted the little one would be a cricketer. “This child will be a cricketer,” were More’s words, as Athmanand told Firdose Moonda of ESPNCricinfo. ALSO READ: Proteas register 3rd consecutive victory against hosts at Perth, go one up

But then, there are dreams, there are sacrifices behind almost all cricket careers. Many of them have gone on to have wonderful careers. There is no evidence, till now, that Keshav Maharaj (it feels extremely odd to address someone as Maharaj, especially a debutant) will emerge as one of them.

A decade of sweat

Maharaj has toiled in South African domestic cricket for a decade, no less. His domestic tally has amounted to 275 wickets at 26.61, excellent numbers for a spinner on tracks that have offered little assistance to him. His economy rates, 4.80 in List A cricket and 6.83 in T20s, are no less than impressive.

He is accurate, very accurate, but his accuracy is not about landing every ball on the same spot: he can control where he wants to land the ball. He can push one through with the new ball, and as the fourth innings has shown, he can turn the ball when the pitch assists him. He can bowl those long spells as well.

Note: I know I probably sounded like he is a combination of Anil Kumble and Muttiah Muralitharan. Just tone things down a bit if I have gone overboard. Maybe add Kumble and Murali and divide by a number as high as you feel like.

The debut

First things first: Maharaj is the first specialist spinner to make his Test debut at Perth. There have been six other Perth debutants who bowl spin (two of them, JP Duminy and Dean Elgar, are his teammates), but Maharaj is the only specialist — though he can bat, and averages 22.91 at First-Class level with 2 hundreds.

As was expected, Maharaj became the first spinner to take a Test wicket at Perth on debut: in fact, he took 4 of them. He also got a few runs. It was a satisfactory debut.

I used to dream of playing cricket when I was a child. I dreamed of making my Test debut on West Indian soil, hitting their main bowlers around, taking out their ace batsmen. Sometimes it was Pakistan, sometimes England, at times even Australia — though they were far from being a champion side in the mid-1980s.

I am sure children have had this dreams across world over eras: achieving against the best men of the opposition. While they crave for being a part of the winning side on debut, they also dream of individual moments of glory, for though it is a team sport, records matter to everyone, especially to a man who is out there to prove a point.

Nobody wants to be “the man who was also there when so-and-so won a Test”; nobody wants to be dropped after playing no role in a team victory after debut. That is the amount of pressure every debut carries when stepping out on the ground for the first time.

South Africa were reduced to 81 for 5 on the first morning. There was resurrection, led by Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock, two men (‘boys’ is more like it) whose little frames can barely contain their tremendous talent. Keshav Maharaj walked out at 175 for 7.

There was a thick edge off Josh Hazlewood that raced past gully. It was a shaky start. On came Mitchell Starc. It was probably a matter of minutes. Starc was, after all, Australia’s spearhead, ranked No. 8 in ICC Test ratings (and No. 4 in ODIs, if it matters).

Starc bowled a bouncer at de Kock. It was called a wide. Maharaj (I finally managed to use only the surname) came on strike. There was a bouncer coming. Everyone was sure of that. Maharaj waited on the back-foot; and when it was not-so-short, he decided to go respond a shot that is yet to be named, a cross-batted hoick that went straight, a stroke manufactured (and crucially, executed to perfection) out of desperation.

A No. 9 debutant had just hit Mitchell Starc — a man who had taken 24 wickets from 3 Tests at 15.16 on unhelpful Sri Lankan tracks in his last series — for a six over his head.

Have you not dreamed of the same, against the top man of your opposition?

Maharaj fell for 19, to Nathan Lyon. Steven Smith had placed David Warner, his best fielder, in anticipation. It had been a change triggered by the debutant.

None of this mattered, of course, for Maharaj was in the side for his bowling. It was with ball that he had to prove his worth. It seemed harder than expected, for Warner and Shaun Marsh got off to an excellent start, adding 158 at 4.47 an over.

Then Dale Steyn had Warner caught and Kagiso Rabada ran through the defence of Usman Khawaja. Out came Steven Smith, No. 1 in ICC Test rankings, boasting a Test average of 58.55.

Maharaj strode in. The first ball, almost flat, beat Smith and rolled towards leg off his pad. The next was more towards off, the trajectory the same, and beat Smith again; this time the impact was in front of the stumps.

Maharaj turned around and yelled, and saw the finger go up. The celebration had to wait, for Smith had done the near-unthinkable by reviewing an Aleem Dar decision. Though Smith was well, well forward, the decision stayed, for the ball was just brushing timber.

Maharaj had taken out the opposition captain, the fulcrum of their batting line-up, officially the top batsman in the world, a man with a batting average over 55 — for a duck.

He got to bowl at Starc before the latter had faced a ball. He beat Starc first ball. Starc pushed the next. He beat Starc again, this time hitting the pads. Starc pushed the next one again. The next one dipped quicker than Starc had anticipated: unable to reach the pitch of the ball, Starc played it to Faf du Plesis at mid-wicket.

Maharaj had claimed Smith for a duck. He had hit Starc over his head for six. And he completed the Starc-domination by dismissing him for a duck as well. And he followed that by getting rid of Peter Nevill, the man who had resisted Sri Lanka’s four-pronged spin attack for 115 minutes on a Pallekele dustbowl.

Du Plessis held back the declaration in the second innings. It was probably justified, for Steyn had been ruled out of the Test. But when Maharaj emerged, he had come out with instructions to go after everything, and he singled out the man who had dismissed him in the first innings, taking 33 off the 22 balls Lyon bowled at him. That included 2 fours and 3 sixes. Maharaj was not out on a 33-ball 41 when Faf finally called it a halt.

There was toil for Maharaj in the fourth innings. He would have got Smith again, had Elgar not dropped the man at silly-point in Maharaj’s third over. Khawaja gave him the charge, obtaining a four and a six. Maharaj beat him with one that kept low.

He beat Smith again. They reviewed. It would have missed. He beat Smith again, this time with near-absurd turn. Khawaja hit him for six again. Smith got a boundary. Khawaja was beaten by turn. The ball took the edges, sometimes rolling to the hawks around the bat, sometimes flying past them. And every now and then he managed to hit the widening cracks, only for the ball to turn too much for the outside edge.

The duel with Nevill was one to behold. If Khawaja had been dominant, Nevill was patient. He played from the crease, waiting for the ball, watching carefully for the one that hit a crack. The fourth innings had not been easy on Maharaj after 57 runs (off 53 balls) and 3 for 56. The fourth innings was when he was expected to thrive, but he had to remain content with the containing job, watching even Duminy and Bavuma get wickets.

But there was still that one wicket to take. And there was that man Lyon, who he had fallen to and hit out against. This was his chance to go one-up, which was precisely what he did: there was no way Lyon would have survived that review.

It was (I get a sneaky feeling I have mentioned this before) not a dream debut. But it had a few dream moments. And these were moments that schoolchildren dream of and make senior men re-live their childhood aspirations.

Maharaj may fade out, but for now it seems like he will stay for some time, for South Africa lack world-class spinners in the longest format. And if that happens, in decades to come, that nose of his may well be remembered as the most iconic one in Test history, perhaps going past even those of Bill Lawry, Ken Rutherford, and Nasser Hussain.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry. He blogs at ovshake.blogspot.com and can be followed on Twitter @ovshake42.)