The current South Africa against India series is pitting the top two sides in Test cricket against each other, but where it looks slightly uni-dimensional is in the surfaces. The edict has gone out to prepare fast and bouncy ones, which has also meant that the spinners have been largely superfluous. Paul Harris, who played 37 Tests for South Africa from 2007 to January 2011, welcomed the move, however. The former left-arm spinner spoke to Wisden India on the sidelines of South Africa’s practice session before the second Test at SuperSport Park. Harris revealed what he sees of himself in Keshav Maharaj, why the pitches will continue to be bouncy and why he is perfectly fine with that, as he was with the Indian pitches the South Africans got two years ago. Excerpts:
Do you expect this series to have pace-friendly pitches for the next two Tests too?
I would hope so yes. I think this wicket generally has a lot of pace and bounce. It will start a bit slow and generally get quicker as the game goes on. Generally Days 2 and 3 get traditionally quicker. There’ll be a lot of bounce, but I’m not sure if there will be as much seam movement as there was in Cape Town. But there’ll certainly be bounce.
There is a theory that the Indian batsmen can actually handle bounce much better than they can seam movement…
I think if it’s seaming any batsman will struggle. The only guy that really looked comfortable was AB de Villiers, and Faf du Plessis played a good knock in the first innings. But all the guys really struggled to score runs. If it’s seaming and bouncing, most batsmen will struggle. I expect the Indian batsmen will do better here than in Cape Town. Like I said it will have more bounce but I don’t think it will be seaming quite as much.
Is there a chance of these pitches backfiring, because the Indian seamers also bowled South Africa out for 130 in the second innings?
What lost the game for the Indians was that first innings. I mean 286 was probably too much on that wicket, especially after being 12 for 3. One thing’s for sure, the Indians have come up with a very good bowling line-up. So yes, there is that element of danger. But I think the South African batsmen back themselves in these conditions to be able to outperform the Indian batsmen. Hopefully, Ngidi plays this Test match, hopefully our four-pronged attack will be difficult to handle.
We’ve talked a lot of pace, but what of Keshav Maharaj, the spinner?
I think he’s a fantastic bowler. He has a great start to his career. He doesn’t miss, he’s very consistent and he gives the ball go rip. A lot of people have been saying he mustn’t play this Test match. I disagree 100%. He should be playing this Test, and with four seamers. That’s what we did at Newlands, except for Ngidi playing for Steyn.
So you think even India should persist with R Ashwin?
I think so. A Test match is a long time, five days is a long time. And it’s going to be very hot here over the next six days. So if it is a good match that lasts, they’ll definitely need a spinner. Ashwin’s done it with the bat as well, so I wouldn’t be leaving him out, that’s for sure.
These pitches are in stark contrast to the ones South Africa played on in 2015, during their tour of India…
That’s the beauty of playing around the world. I mean, I don’t have a problem with that. I know the wickets in India spun a lot, but that’s what you are going to get in India. So I didn’t have a problem with that. As when you come here, the ball is going to seam around. That’s the beauty of playing in different conditions and trying to win in different conditions. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to win in India. And also one of the reasons why it’s difficult for Asian teams and come and do well here.
Was there more turn in South African pitches in your era?
I think there’s also been a concerted effort this time around, to make sure the wickets don’t help the Indian side. And especially after what happened in India, we got a bit of a hiding there. So I think it was on Faf du Plessis’s mind. He wants good bouncing wickets, doesn’t necessarily need the wicket to seam around. But he wants the wicket to have good carry and bounce, make it a typical South African pitches.
I’ll be very surprised if we any of the wickets turn genuinely.
No nostalgia for spin then, given you had done very well against India?
I think they have got their tactic spot on. Why would they play into the hands of India and make the wicket turn and not have any green there? Having said that, if this Test match goes five day there could be a little in it for the spinners, no doubt. But what Test match these days goes five days!
Where do you think South Africa’s spin legacy is at?
Look we’ve certainly got one now. Keshav Maharaj is a very good bowler. And he’s a very good legspinner. And there’s a very good young lespinner. If we come to the subcontinent next time, those will be our two spinners. Actually, the South Africans have been pretty successful in India. Probably the most successful visiting team in India. Our seamers have done well. Dale Steyn, magnificent in the subcontinent too. Morne Morkel, Andre Nel – they were all successful in the subcontinent. We’ll always be a team focussed on seam, but we’ll have a couple of good spinners next time we go there.
What makes Maharaj good?
I don’t think he has that many variations, but rather he sticks to consistency. He can get the ball in the same area over and over again, getting the ball to spin, to drift. And these days with DRS, if it hits the front pad, you can be given out. I don’t think he’s that dissimilar to Ravindra Jadeja. He’s that type of bowler. He bowls it quicker, tries to ball wicket to wicket.
Reminds you of yourself a bit?
I suppose in a way. He’s much better than I was, he gets more revolutions on the ball and spins it a bit more. I’ve had a lot of conversations with him. About field placings, how he can bowl in different situations and the like.