The Proteas selectors seem to have moved on from Imran Tahir. However, after his heroics in The Hundred he has re-entered a World Cup squad conversation with him controlling his international future, writes RYAN VREDE.
Tahir was excellent for the Birmingham Phoenix on Monday, taking 5-25, which included a hat-trick.
In the wake of the result, talk of Tahir’s international future resurfaced. He is 42 years old, but has yet to relinquish the hope of playing for the Proteas in one last major tournament. Good enough is good enough, irrespective of age. So performance, not his advancing years, needs to be the primary measure of the man.
Tahir last played T20I cricket for the Proteas in 2019. Tabraiz Shamsi unseated him then and hasn’t looked back since, in a rise that has culminated in him becoming the world’s top-ranked bowler in the format.
At the time in 2019, the Proteas selectors were firm in their belief that seam bowlers best suited their T20I philosophy, leaving room for just one spinner.
That tactical philosophy has evolved though, with two spinners – Shamsi and George Linde – now regulars, while Bjorn Fortuin has established himself as the primary backup to that duo.
Tahir still believes he has what takes to excel at international T20 level. He’ll point to his performances this season to support that belief.
He took 13 wickets in seven matches for the Multan Sultans during the Pakistan Super League (PSL). That left him just seven wickets short of being the tournament’s leading wicket-taker, although he played four fewer matches and bowled 15 fewer overs than the top-ranked bowler. Critically, his 25 overs cost him an average of just 6.85 runs per over – excellent by any T20 metric.
Notably, Tahir’s 13 wickets were two more than the world’s third-ranked T20I bowler, Rashid Khan, despite Tahir bowling seven fewer overs than the Afghanistan star. It was consistent with the trend of Tahir outperforming Khan in franchise T20 cricket since the start of the 2019 IPL.
Tahir is currently the 10th-ranked wicket-taker in The Hundred, two wickets shy of Khan in second, and three off the top.
Tahir pulled out of the 2020-21 Big Bash League for personal reasons, but returned for the IPL, where he played a handful of matches with little impact. This after playing a total of just three matches in a Covid-19-disrupted 2020 season. He has always needed a consistent run of matches to build to full potency, and Tahir’s latest exceptional feat underpins this truth. History suggests that his performance graph should climb as The Hundred rolls on.
While Tahir’s wicket threat has diminished somewhat, he remains very economical. In his last 10 T20 matches (excluding The Hundred, which doesn’t lend itself to this measurement), he has had an average economy rate of 6.80 per over. In a format that prioritises pressure exertion, this makes him a massive asset.
Some would argue that the PSL, where he played the majority of those matches, is a poor measure of a player with international aspirations. This is fair, but it would be short-sighted to disregard those performances entirely. This, after all, is a player who just two seasons ago took the most wickets in the IPL.
Tahir’s lack of ability with the bat does him no favours in a Proteas context. Shamsi is a lame duck with the willow, but Linde and Fortuin are competent. For a Proteas side whose T20I batting is some way off where they envision it being, supporting another non-batting spinner in a starting 11 probably isn’t an option.
This mean Tahir is likely to be considered direct competition for Shamsi, which, in a selection context, means he is likely to miss out on World Cup selection.
His best hope of making the tournament in the UAE and Oman would be if the selectors went for a loaded spin component in the squad, which is not inconceivable given that the dry wickets will amplify their threat. Tahir could travel as a backup for Shamsi, ensuring continuity in the team’s tactical approach, should the latter sustain an injury or struggle for form.
Tahir’s inclusion in the squad would likely come at the expense of a specialist seamer, which carries some risk if one of the pacemen sustains an injury or dips in form. It is almost certain that he wouldn’t be accommodated at the expense of a specialist batsman.
Viewed in this light, there are too many variables for Tahir to be anything more than hopeful that his international career will have one last chapter. This is unless he lights The Hundred on fire in the matches that remain.
Sustained excellence there will put the selectors under immense pressure. Tahir, it is clear, is the master of his own international destiny.