Keshav Maharaj is not a massive turner of the cricket ball. His left-arm finger spin is not deceptive or unique. From five T20 internationals he has taken six wickets but has conceded a miserly 4.95 runs an over. His role in the side is to simply hold up an end.
He was on a similar mission as he spoke on Friday evening before South Africa’s T20 World Cup match against Sri Lanka on Saturday. The team has been engulfed in controversy since Tuesday following Quinton de Kock’s decision to ignore a directive from Cricket South Africa and not take the knee as an anti-racist gesture at the start of their game against the West Indies. As a consequence he missed the eight-wicket win which kept the Proteas in the hunt for a semi-final position.
After speaking with the board De Kock issued a statement insisting that he would take the knee if his captain, Temba Bavuma, who spoke with great composure after Tuesday’s match, would have him back. Perhaps in an effort to douse tensions before a must-win encounter, CSA selected Maharaj to speak on the team’s behalf.
“It’s obviously been a tough week,” Maharaj said. “But the boys are mature enough and adult enough to adapt to the situation. The spirits were high in training. There is the buzz and drive that is back after a long two days. The boys are focused on cricket now.”
While the side was training, the Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) hearings – launched by CSA in July to uncover endemic racism within the game at all levels – reached their conclusion. Bringing the curtain down was Michael Holding, the great West Indian fast bowler whose recent book Why We Kneel, How We Rise addresses the global Black Lives Matter campaign and its collision with the world of sport.
Maharaj could not say if any of his teammates had read the book, but he did convey a message of unity that was incongruous with events this week.
“We’ve had endless chats about this as a team and we respect everyone’s decisions and views and opinions,” he said. “So for us it’s not a big thing. We know everyone supports one another. Respect is one of our pillars and I think that is what it boils down to.”
When asked if De Kock would play, as is expected, Maharaj offered a straight bat: “That is down to the selectors. But if he gets the opportunity I know he’ll slot straight back into the team. A person of his calibre, we know what Quinny can do with the bat.”
In his statement on Thursday, De Kock had said: “There always seems to be a drama when we go to World Cups. That isn’t fair.” That he was himself the cause of this drama was sidestepped but Maharaj was eager to forgive and forget.
“He puts match-winning knocks on, we saw that in Sri Lanka where he was the player of the series [in September, scoring 153 from three matches with two fifties],” Maharaj added. “He’s a very mature character despite what people may think. We love having him in the team.
“We drew a lot of inspiration from the way we’ve reacted in the past to various situations thrown at us and this has made us bond and gel even stronger. You’ll see a lot more energy than you have seen in the last two games which is hard to believe especially where we started. It has brought its together.”
They face a Sri Lanka side that was easily dismantled by David Warner and Australia but one that poses challenges across the lineup. Dushmantha Chameera regularly tops 90mph and mystery spinner Maheesh Theekshana will fancy his chances against a Proteas outfit often spooked by the slow ball. Kusal Perera is devastating when he gets going at the top of the order and will hope to remind the South Africans of his epic 153 in the Test in Durban in 2019.
Maharaj’s contribution could be telling. Sri Lanka’s batters hammered Glenn Maxwell’s spin for 16 in one over, forcing Australia to bowl three overs from Marcus Stoinis. They may regard Maharaj as easy prey with the world’s No 1 T20 bowler Tabraiz Shamsi, and the pace duo of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, alongside him. If Maharaj can provide the same defensive cover that he offered during Friday’s press conference, he may win it for his side.