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Maharaj hits the perfect awkward length to give India's batters a working over

Keshav Maharaj traps KL Rahul lbw Associated Press

On a night when the rest of South Africa's attack combined to concede 210 off 96 wicketless balls, and on a pitch where 458 runs came in 40 overs, Keshav Maharaj bowled 24 balls, gave away 23 runs, and took two wickets. On a night full of incredible hitting from both teams, and on a night when South Africa lost, Maharaj's efforts were never really in the running for the Player-of-the-Match award. It's the way these things work.

But there was some reward at the end of it: he was ESPNcricinfo's MVP, with his impact rating of 88 putting his performance ahead of blindingly brilliant knocks from David Miller, Suryakumar Yadav and KL Rahul.

This was an important performance in Maharaj's career. He played his first T20I only in September 2021, nearly five years after making his Test debut, but in just over a year, he's arguably leapfrogged Tabraiz Shamsi - the No. 2 bowler on the ICC's T20I rankings - to become South Africa's first-choice spinner in the shortest format.

South Africa have played 12 T20Is this year, and Maharaj has featured in all of them. Shamsi has missed two games, both against India in India - the washout in Bengaluru back in June, and Sunday night's run-fest in Guwahati.

These could have been opposition-specific selections, of course, the left-arm orthodox spinner winning out against the left-arm wristspinner against a top seven featuring six right-hand batters. And on Sunday, India arguably lent Maharaj a bit of a helping hand by sending in Virat Kohli at the fall of the first wicket, when Maharaj still had 1.1 overs remaining. It could have been a chance to promote the left-handed Rishabh Pant, or to push Suryakumar Yadav, their best player of spin, up one place from No. 4 to No. 3.

Suryakumar eventually came in when Maharaj had two balls left to bowl, and immediately showed the difference between him and the rest of India's top four, picking up six runs off those two balls with a pair of perfectly controlled sweeps. Suryakumar is India's most frequent user of the sweep, because he can play the shot off a far greater range of lengths than most.

KL Rahul had tried sweeping Maharaj earlier in the over, only to be defeated by the perfect T20 length - a touch too short for most batters to sweep safely, but not short enough to cut or pull - and the ball's low, skiddy trajectory off the pitch.

Soon after that wicket, the broadcast cut to a montage of Maharaj's deliveries to Rahul. All of them were pitched on this awkward length, and Rahul had played all but the last of them - the fatal sweep - off the back foot. Nearly everything was bowled at upwards of 90kph, so there was little scope for the batter to step out of his crease. And there was no real joy to be had off the back foot, with the ball drifting in sharply, and then either skidding on or straightening marginally - in either case finishing within the line of the stumps. There was no room to free the arms, and the natural variation in turn - there wasn't a great deal of it, but just enough - meant there was too little margin for error to attack with a straight bat. When the batters tried to make room, he followed them, reading their intentions brilliantly.

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Maharaj had erred twice with his length in his first over - the sixth of India's innings - and Rohit Sharma had swept and pulled him for a pair of fours. But he settled quickly into that in-between length thereafter, helped by the field spreading out, and conceded only seven runs off his next ten balls before a frustrated Rohit slog-swept him straight into deep midwicket's hands.

It was Rahul's turn, after that, to try and break the shackles with a sweep, and lose his wicket in the process. Suryakumar apart, India's batters aren't natural sweepers - Rahul plays the lap-sweep brilliantly, but not so much the square sweep - and Maharaj was giving them a thorough working-over.

This was the one blemish in India's otherwise sensational batting display, and a bit of a flashback to last year's T20 World Cup, where Imad Wasim and Mitchell Santner had tied them down in a similar manner.

Like Imad and Santner, Maharaj had preyed on the limitations of India's top order. But on a pitch that gave him little margin for error, he had to bowl with extraordinary control and guile to pull it off.