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ICC World Cup 2023 – Pak vs SA – Keshav Maharaj caps unlikely World Cup comeback with cathartic winning role

Keshav Maharaj was just having dinner around the time when Pakistan’s concussion substitute Usama Mir pinned Rassie van der Dussen lbw for 21. South Africa were 121 for 3 at that point, needing a further 150 runs off almost 30 overs. Given South Africa’s gun middle-order – Aiden Markram at No.4, Heinrich Klaasen No.5 and David Miller at No.6 – Maharaj might have felt like he could just put his feet up during the chase, having put in a shift with the ball in Chennai’s oppressive heat.
But it eventually came down to him scoring the winning runs for South Africa with No.11 Tabraiz Shamsi at the other end, lifting the lid on what had become a cauldron of immense tension at Chepauk. When left-arm fingerspinner Mohammad Nawaz darted one into the thigh from around the wicket, Maharaj coolly shuffled and played a half-pull, half-paddle, directing the ball between midwicket and short fine leg. He also comfortably beat the man on the square-leg boundary.
“I think it was a surreal moment,” Maharaj said after South Africa’s one-wicket triumph. “You always dream of winning games for your country, but winning games in a World Cup…it’s very special. Those are the moments that you cherish, building up towards the tournament.

“To be honest, there were a lot of thoughts running through my head. I was just watching the ball and fortunate enough I was in a position where I could just score and place it in the gap.”

Maharaj wasn’t supposed to be ready for the World Cup in the first place. But he made a remarkable return – a ruptured Achilles tendon usually takes nine months to heal but he was back on the park in less than six – to make it to India. He has roots in the country and now they’ve only grown stronger. On Friday, in front of almost 30,000 spectators in Chennai, he delivered a remarkable coup de grâce. He celebrated it with cathartic chest thumps and roars.

“It was one of those moments for me,” Maharaj said. “I knew how big the win is for the team. I think that’s why the emotions were on a high.”

Maharaj had got together with Shamsi, with South Africa needing 11 off 27 balls. Haris Rauf had just pulled off a sensational one-handed return catch in his follow-through to dismiss Lungi Ngidi for 4. Shamsi had to see off three legal balls from Rauf and then front up to an over from Mohammad Wasim, who was getting the ball to fizz off the Chepauk deck. But the last-wicket pair knocked off those 11 runs in as many balls to seal the deal.

“Fortunately enough, the batters set a bit of foundation and we didn’t have too much [to score] at the back end, so yes, now and then there was a ball to take a risk,” Maharaj said. “But if you look at the bigger picture, with 40 balls to go…we knew if we batted those 40 balls, we would be able to score. Yeah, I had to fight temptation now and then, but I knew if we could take it deep, we could cross over the line.”

Maharaj is a capable batter with two first-class centuries and five Test fifties to his name. But did he really trust Ngidi and Shamsi to stick around with him, when the Pakistan quicks were generating some serious reverse-swing?

“Yeah, definitely,” Maharaj said. “It’s easy for me to stand here and lie to you guys [laughs]. I genuinely did. Especially Lungi, he showed that he could stick around, especially in the game against Netherlands. We had simple plans and unfortunately, he got out to a really good ball and a good catch. Shammo and I have played a lot of cricket together and he’s pretty much like me when it comes to the hamster running in the head, but I’m really glad that he held his nerve. We just kept it simple. And he said to me he’s seeing it [the ball] big.”

Maharaj was also particularly happy with the depth in South Africa’s attack. Prior to the start of the World Cup, Anrich Nortje and Sisanda Magala were both ruled out with injuries and, during the tournament, they’ve had to deal with niggles to Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada, who missed this match after a back spasm. But Gerald Coetzee has emerged from the fringes and has become South Africa’s enforcer in the middle overs. He has taken 10 wickets in five matches between overs 11 and 40 – the most by any fast bowler during this phase in this World Cup. And in Lucknow and Chennai, where the pitches are traditionally slow and low, they’ve paired Shamsi up with Maharaj.

“Fortunately enough, we have a lot of depth from a fast bowlers’ perspective,” Maharaj said. “And I’m really pleased to see Gerald come through leaps and bounds. It just shows the quality that we have in our squad and I’m especially really happy for Shammo. He’s done an amazing job. He’s done some really hard yards in the nets and it’s good to see it pay off.”

South Africa picked both Maharaj and Shamsi to do the job with the ball at Chepauk. As it turned out, they finished the job with the bat, too, putting South Africa on the top of the standings.

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