Imran Tahir’s cunning, control and guile have given the Proteas’ powerful pace attack an extra dimension in white-ball cricket, writes ZAAHIER ADAMS.
Imran Tahir is notorious for giving reporters the runaround. It is not that he does not want to be interviewed, or that he is self-indulgent. Quite the contrary – he is simply a bundle of energy.
This time was no different. From chasing him while on tour with the Proteas in Australia all the way to the Mzansi Super League, and even to him evading me at the hotel breakfast table back in Cape Town, I started experiencing that same helplessness a batsman is subjected to after just being clean bowled by a Tahir googly. You know it’s coming, but you just don’t know how to counter it.
‘If that’s how you felt, you were never going to pin me down because you can’t read my googly,’ Tahir said, and chuckled when I finally managed to sit him down.
Tahir has, of course, been bamboozling reporters and batsmen for the past 22 years on a colourful journey that has taken him across continents, and in the process has seen him turn out for no less than 38 teams ever since his first-class debut back in Lahore in 1996. The last statement is quite telling, considering that a couple of Tahir’s Proteas teammates, such as Kagiso Rabada, Andile Phehlukwayo and Aiden Markram would have been barely out of diapers at that time.
Yet, at 39 years of age, Tahir may still possess the dynamism and drive to more than equal the collective trio. Perhaps the secret lies in the magic green smoothie he enjoys every morning. Maybe it’s the fact he is trying to make up for lost time, having been forced to sit out a qualification period after moving to South Africa from Pakistan. But whatever it is, within Tahir’s chest burns a flame that is not ready to be extinguished just yet.
‘I would love to sit here and tell you that I am going to play for the next 10 years, but I would be lying. I am going to play for as long as I have the passion to play and do well for my country.
‘It is not easy to play at the highest level for so long. People don’t see the hard work behind the scenes. I just came from the gym and I am going for a run later. My body is in good shape Alhamdulillah [All praise is due to God alone]. I still get up every morning feeling like I want to do well for my country.’
South Africans will dearly hope Tahir’s enthusiasm carries him through the next couple of months, at least until the World Cup next July, by when he would have turned 40 already.
There have been older statesmen at the World Cup before, such as Holland’s Nolan Clarke (he played in the 1996 World Cup at the sprightly old age of 47 years and 257 days), followed by young John Traicos of Zimbabwe, who was 44 years old when he played in the 1992 World Cup. The difference in both cases was that neither player was expected to bring home the glass trophy to a success-starved nation that had been waiting in anticipation for 27 years.
For his part, Tahir is at the forefront of his nation’s quest for a long-awaited World Cup triumph, and in his favour is the fact he’s a proven world-beater. It was not that long ago that he held the No 1 spot on the ICC bowlers’ rankings in both white-ball formats, and it was only recently that he was usurped by a band of youthful turners who include Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan, England’s Adil Rashid and India’s deadly duo of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
And in true Tahir fashion, he does not view the current status quo as the waning of his powers, but rather to embrace the challenge and delights in the healthy state of spin bowling around the world. This is not lip service either, as Tahir can often be spotted not simply assisting fellow Proteas tweaker Tabraiz Shamsi at the nets, but also helping the opposition bowlers such as Brandon Mavuta during the recent Zimbabwe ODI series.
‘It’s nice to see the spinners coming up. I’m the kind of guy who loves challenges. I always try to help spinners as much as I can, wherever I go and play anywhere in the world. I love to talk about bowling, and whoever comes for help I’m always there.
‘It is the way world cricket is going. The more spinners, the better. Most teams are playing two spinners. Look at England with Adil and Moeen. India have Kuldeep and Chahal. It makes the game exciting. We have Shammo [Shamsi] and me too. We help captains with the over rate too,’ he says, his eyes alive and his smile wide.
Tahir’s budding partnership with Shamsi is certainly critical with regard to South Africa’s World Cup ambitions. The pair haven’t played much together in the recent past, both being rotated at various junctures over the past year. Shamsi, in particular, has thrived on the extra responsibility of being the ‘No 1’ spinner on the tour to Sri Lanka, before Tahir returned to wreak havoc against the Zimbabweans.
Considering the quality of the Proteas pace bowling resources, it may not be often that the pair operate in tandem, but Tahir does believe the situation could arise at next year’s World Cup when they may be called upon collectively.
‘I have played for years in England, at almost every county [laughs] and played on all the grounds. I know the pitches very well. They are taking more and more spin.
‘We saw in last year’s Champions Trophy final how the ball was turning square. If England has a really hot summer like last year, the pitches will take some wear and tear and offer the spinners much more, because the tournament is long and a lot of matches are going to be played. I am confident Shammo and I can play together,’ he added.
Tahir’s gold-plated value for the Proteas has over the years been his ability to strike during the ‘middle overs’. That period where the opposition batsmen are content to knock the ball around after the frenzied opening power play before launching another assault towards the end of the innings.
With two new balls being utilised in ODI cricket and the number of fielders on the boundary being limited, the dice are firmly loaded against the bowling team at the death if there is a set batsman at the crease. Tahir has been unrivalled in his ability to ease the pressure on the death bowlers through his wicket-taking ability.
Recently, though, teams have attempted to counter this threat by negotiating past his spell by limiting their risk options as soon as the leg-spinner is introduced into the attack.
It is for this reason that the Proteas, through their canny skipper Faf du Plessis, have now employed a new method of attack, with Tahir being asked to open the bowling in the Zimbabwe series.
‘I enjoyed the challenge. Like I have said before… I am always up for any challenge. It was exciting to take the new ball. I think with us wanting to play two spinners on occasion, it does become an option sometimes.
‘I am also not worried if batsmen do not want to take risks against me. That opens up opportunities for the other bowlers. Also, we have a pace attack that includes fast bowlers such as Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, who can all bowl over 145km/h. I am sure any batsman would rather take a chance against me than any one of them.’
Whether Tahir bowls the opening ball of the World Cup at Lord’s against hosts England, or is called upon later in the innings to work his magic, one thing is certain: cricket fans around the world will delight in the spectacle of watching a master craftsman at work during cricket’s showcase festival of cricket. It will truly be an opportunity to savour, for they certainly don’t make cricketers like the magician from the Punjab anymore.
Photo: Matt King/Getty Images