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Maharaj's control shapes tense and teasing day

Keshav Maharaj claimed the wickets of Steven Smith and Shaun Marsh AFP

The fire and the fury will have to wait. The fastidiousness of Keshav Maharaj moved the series out of first gear but not quite into the fast lane on the opening day. Much like pitches were the theme of the India series, pace will be the topic of this one, especially when there is a lack of it.

Whether or not South Africa specifically asked for slow(er) pitches, they have got one at Kingsmead, and the early evidence suggests it can be a way to keep Australia's aggressive line-up in check. That was the feature of today's play. It involved very few fireworks, but it was about tension and teasers, cat and mouse, hide and seek, and we are nowhere near finding anything yet.

What we know is that South Africa will need their spinner much more than they usually do, and so too, probably, will Australia. The hosts' team composition of seven specialist batsmen forces them to go in a bowler short, with immediately extends Maharaj's workload. Aiden Markram and Theunis de Bruyn offer a few overs, but with only three frontline seamers, Maharaj knew from the outset that he would be needed to bowl "lots and lots" of overs, as captain Faf du Plessis said at the toss. And he did.

Maharaj was brought on as early as the 11th over and delivered an opening spell of seven overs. Then he came back halfway through the second session and bowled through to tea in a spell of ten overs. After tea, he came on for six overs and was brought back the over before play was called off for bad light, and would have probably gone through until the second new ball, which is four overs away.

But the quantity was not as important as the quality, and from his first ball Maharaj showed he could be a threat. That ball gripped and turned and struck David Warner on the back pad, and the naked eye suggested it was going on to clip leg stump. South Africa, having squandered one review on Morne Morkel's insistence in the first over, used another, and replays showed it was missing by some distance, much to the disbelief of even some Australians. "Usman [Khawaja, the non-striker] told me he thought it was out as well," Maharaj joked afterwards. "But Hawkeye proved everyone wrong."

Maharaj's opening spell included a surprising amount of turn, more than he, who plays his domestic cricket at the Dolphins franchise based at this venue, has encountered before. He thought it may have had something to do with the "stickiness in the wicket" caused by overnight sweating under covers in heavy humidity.

The spin didn't bring any early rewards and it was Vernon Philander who changed the complexion of the morning session with the wicket of David Warner off the final ball before lunch. After that, it was time for Maharaj to play a bigger role, and he did it admirably because, as the day went on and the pitch flattened out, Australia could have got away but didn't. With Maharaj holding an end up for most of the second session, South Africa only conceded 75 runs in the 29 overs they bowled in the second session and brought Australia's scoring rate down from 3.5 runs an over to just over 3. Maharaj allowed the seamers to stay fresh and helped facilitate reverse-swing, which was particularly noticeable during Kagiso Rabada's post-lunch spell.

"I thought he controlled it well from one end, especially when the ball was going reverse," Warner said of Maharaj's performance. "We know that when the ball is shifting you've always got to speak to the spinners that they are holding the ball the right way and keeping one side dry and obviously that didn't affect the way that he bowled. It can affect some spinners. I thought he held up one end very well and they slowed our scoring down with the fast bowlers at the other end."

Maharaj was particularly effective in keeping Steven Smith quiet. Smith reached 46 off 60 balls and was dismissed for 56 off 114 - his last 10 runs took 54 balls, of which 20 were delivered by Maharaj. The Australian captain was dismissed trying to cut a shorter ball but Maharaj explained there was no mystery to his ability to take wickets, only discipline.

"You don't go out trying for wickets. Kingsmead is a wicket where if you stop the scoring something will happen," he said. "I don't have many variations so I have to rely on consistency to outsmart the batsmen."

But there is some magic in the way Maharaj does things. He got Shaun Marsh with a ball that drifted and bounced to take the outside edge and Maharaj started to experiment with flight as the day wore on. He doesn't do anything extravagant but he doesn't need to.

In the end, Maharaj turned in the third-best performance, since readmission, by a South African spinner in the first innings at Kingsmead. He also bowled the second-most overs, after Imran Tahir's 28 on the first day of a Test against Sri Lanka in 2011.

Nathan Lyon would have regarded all this with great interest, not least because visiting spinners have fared better here in the first innings than local ones. Lyon will also have the advantage of bowling last and with the general feeling that spin will play a big role in the match, if not the whole series, fire and fury really will have to wait, while fastidiousness enjoys its rewards.