Imran Tahir made his debut for South Africa in the 2011 World Cup. Ever since their readmission to world cricket, they had been looking for a world class spinner to complement their pace attacks which had almost always been outstanding. For a long while Paul Harris was their lone spinner in test matches. In ODIs, they depended on the slow left arm bowling of Robin Peterson and the off-breaks of Jean Paul Duminy to give the fast bowlers some breathing space. Add to that, they had the service of the great Jacques Kallis to call upon. But in the 2011 edition held in the subcontinent, South Africa genuinely believed Tahir could make a mark.
The Pakistani-born legspinner had represented Pakistan under-19 team and Pakistan A. Tahir made his first class debut for Lahore in as early as 1996 at the age of 17. But top level cricket always remained a far fetched dream for him in Pakistan. He played for Middlesex, Staffordshire, Yorkshire, Hampshire and Warwickshire in England. After marrying a South African, he moved there and played for the Titans and the Dolphins in the country’s domestic competitions and impressed the national selectors.
After a few months of drama, he finally became eligible to play for the country as he fulfilled the residence requirement in January 2011. Earlier he was selected in January 2010 to play against England, but later disqualified because he had not met the eligibility criteria by then. Though he was picked for the ODI series against India in early 2011, captain Graeme Smith was not willing to let the mystery surrounding Tahir be out just before the World Cup.
Thus Tahir, the man with the record of representing most teams (27), played his first international match in a World Cup. He justified the captain’s faith with a four wicket haul at Delhi against West Indies on his debut. Tahir kept on getting wickets in that tournament. He was the second highest wicket taker for South Africa in that tournament with 14 wickets from just five matches, behind Robin Peterson who got to play all seven matches and got 15 scalps. Tahir’s numbers read 14 wickets at an average of 10.71 and an economy rate of 3.79.
More than these mind-boggling numbers, what Tahir got noted for in that World Cup was his celebrations after picking up a wicket. He would fox with the batsman with a googly or get him bowled or get a return catch or get him caught at long-on, and then run with his arms stretched out around the field. His team mates would need to wait for him to come back for the high-fives. That was to become a template for Tahir celebrations throughout his career.
Though his numbers suggested enormous potential, South Africa’s ignominious exit from the World Cup meant no one really took notice of it. He made his test debut in late 2011 against Australia, but had to wait till 2013 to play his next ODI match. His test performances never inspired a recall either. In 2012, Tahir got the embarrassing record of the worst figures in a test match with his 0-260 against Australia in Adelaide.
But when he finally got to play in coloured clothing again, Tahir showed that he could be a real match winner in the 50-over game. After his recall, he has taken 50 wickets in 28 matches at an average of 21.84. He is not profligate either, giving away less than 4.5 runs an over which is excellent for spinners of this era.
So far in this World Cup, Tahir has picked up 9 wickets from three matches. His 5 for 45 against West Indies at Sydney was overshadowed by an AB deVilliers masterclass. This was only the second five wicket haul in Australia by any spinner since 2000. That shows how difficult it is for spinners to stamp their authority on an ODI game down under.
What Tahir does is he keeps it tight during the middle overs and induces mistakes from the batsmen. It was his double strike that derailed Zimbabwe in the first match after they scared South Africa for a while. Even against India, when all other main bowlers leaked runs, he kept it tight and bagged the prized scalp of Virat Kohli. Leg spinners are crucial in Australian grounds where the mishits tend to stay inside the field usually. Tahir has a deceptive googly as well. The variations that end up futile in the longer version of the game, bring rich rewards for him in ODIs.
South African fans will be hoping that they would be witnessing more over-the-top celebrations from this maverick leg spinner in the coming days. And their players would not mind running after a jubilant Tahir at the MCG on March 29.