As David Warner and Mitchell Marsh, chasing 339 in the third ODI in Potchefstroom on Tuesday, steered Australia close to the 150-run mark inside 15 overs, it looked like South Africa were in for a shellacking.
It is not common for any top side in cricket to go an entire fortnight winless on home soil but here were the Proteas staring at a 0-6 deficit after six matches.
The whitewash in the T20Is was excusable considering they predominantly experimented, fielding comically unbalanced XIs in some games for the sake of the bigger picture, but a humbling in an ODI series at home with a full-strength side, against a severely depleted Australian unit, is something that pretty much no one saw coming. Especially considering the recent lop-sided history, with the Proteas’ last ODI defeat against the Kangaroos on home soil coming back in 2011 (8 wins in 8 post 2011).
On the day, It didn’t seem to matter that South Africa produced their best batting performance of the tour yet in the first innings, posting 338 on the back of a sublime Aiden Markram ton. Everything pointed towards the batting efforts accounting for nothing as not for the first time in the series, the Australian batters made the South African pacers look like semi-professionals, borderline humiliating them.
South Africa’s seamers bowled 9 of the first 14 overs of the chase, and their figures looked as follows: 9-0-99-1. 16 fours and 3 sixes conceded, i.e. a boundary every 2.8 balls.
The nature of ODI cricket usually gives teams ample time to bounce back but 14 overs into the chase, this game, and subsequently the series, looked done.
Heading into this series, at the top of South Africa’s priority list was using these five ODIs to identify and finalize what they were going to do with their spin bowling stocks come the World Cup.
Maharaj? Shamsi? Or Maharaj AND Shamsi?
After fielding Maharaj as the sole specialist spinner in the first ODI, and Shamsi in the second, the Proteas, on Tuesday, fielded the pair together for the first time in an ODI since October 2022.
Potchefstroom is no Lucknow, but the third ODI went a long way in showing just why ‘Maharaj AND Shamsi’ might be the way to go for South Africa at the World Cup.
Rightly and deservedly, South Africa’s 111-run victory in the third ODI will go down as a rout but, as alluded to earlier in the article, Australia, at the very least, were 65-35 favorites at one point, having absolutely obliterated the South African speedsters. After 14 overs they were 135/1 and the required run rate had come down to 5.66 from the original 6.78.
Australia would go on to lose their last 9 wickets for just 87 runs but though Gerald Coetzee (4/50) took more wickets than any other Proteas bowler, it really was Maharaj and Shamsi who turned the game on its head.
On the night, between them, the pair finished with combined figures of 17-2-66-4, which is remarkable in a game that witnessed a total of 555 runs being scored in 88.3 overs.
What truly turns this showing from ‘very good’ to ‘astonishing’ is the fact that they toyed with the Australian Top Six despite coming into bowl under extreme pressure, in the worst situation imaginable.
It wasn’t until the 13th over of the innings that Temba Bavuma turned to one of his specialist spinners, by which point the Aussies had rampaged their way to 118/1 in 12. But on a track that had discernible assistance for the slower bowlers, Shamsi made an immediate impression, conceding just three runs off his first over.
It was a good start, but with the required run rate already under 5.75, wickets were the need of the hour for the Proteas. Realizing the same, Shamsi dangled the carrot to Mitch Marsh in his second over and was rewarded immediately: after thumping a floater from the wrist-spinner over the head of mid-off, Marsh holed out the very next ball, attempting to clear long-on.
In his third over, the wrist-spinner got taken aback by Marnus Labuschagne giving him the charge and depositing him over long-off. But instead of getting rattled, Shamsi got stimulated.
After the hit, he gave Labuschagne the most competitive of stares, almost asking the batter to ‘do it again if he can’.
It took seven more balls, but Labuschagne fell for the bait on the penultimate delivery of the 21st over. The Queenslander gave the charge but, this time, Shamsi pulled the length back. That was the first act. The second act, the pivotal one, was him bowling a googly, and that completely stumped Labuschagne. Literally.
On the night, twice Shamsi created something out of nothing, and he eventually finished with figures of 2/29 off his 7.
Like Shamsi, Maharaj, too, picked two wickets but his most important contribution in the game came while his partner-in-crime was bowling. Batting like a dream on 78* (56), Warner nudged a length delivery from Shamsi to square leg and took off for what was a regulation single. However, a regulation run turned into a suicidal one for the Kangaroos as Warner, after taking off for the run, slipped.
He recovered, got back on his feet and rushed to the non-striker's' end, but to no avail. Maharaj fired a direct hit to catch him short.
This run out was bookended by the two Shamsi dismissals but, in many ways, it was the Warner wicket that truly instigated the collapse, for the Aussies lost their next 6 wickets for just 43 runs.
The run-out aside, on the night, the Australian batters were confronted by a classic Maharaj spell: one where the left-arm spinner showcased impeccable accuracy, relentlessly attacking the stumps.
With the Potchefstroom surface offering a generous amount of turn, there was simply no way out for the Australian batters.
Maharaj finished with figures of 10-2-37-2, his highlight of the night, outside the Warner run-out, being a ‘dream’ delivery to Stoinis, where he got the right-hander stumped after getting the ball to drift in, dip and beat the outside-edge.
Who among Maharaj and Shamsi should be the first-choice spinner is a question for which South Africa still don’t have an answer, but Tuesday was evidence for the fact that playing both together could be a more-than-viable option on surfaces that offer something for the spinners.
With South Africa scheduled to play at least four of their nine World Cup matches in grounds known to assist spinners (Chennai, Delhi, Lucknow and Pune), we might just end up seeing Maharaj and Shamsi play together plenty of times across these next 60 days.