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Imran Tahir - How Proteas’ journeyman found a home

Eyewitness News logo Eyewitness News 2018-10-12 Adrian Ephraim
a man doing a trick: The veteran leg spinner Imran Tahir. © OfficialCSA. The veteran leg spinner Imran Tahir.

CAPE TOWN - To say that Imran Tahir is a journeyman would be to oversimplify the eventful path the Pakistan-born spinner travelled to reach the peak of his powers.

More than talent, it was his burning desire to play international cricket that kept him surging forward.

Tahir has been around the block and played for more teams than most professional cricketers these days – a world record 27 teams, in fact.

He’s played for teams like the Water and Power Development Authority in Pakistan.

Basically, if he were in South Africa it would mean he’d play for the Eskom XI. And there were other teams like the Sui Gas Corporation of Pakistan and the Multan Sultans.

Now, after taking five wickets for 23 runs in the first T20 international against Zimbabwe in East London on Tuesday, Tahir stands at the pinnacle, as the best T20 bowler in South Africa and ranked ninth in the world with 62 wickets.

That achievement - coupled with the web he spun around Zimbabwe’s batsmen in the second ODI in Bloemfontein, where he took six for 24 off six overs, including a hat-trick - convinced selectors they’ve seen enough to pencil him in as more than a World Cup possibility if he remains fit.

His career figures in T20 after 37 matches consists of 62 wickets at the cost of 927 runs, and an average of 14.95.

His ODI form puts him at number seven on the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings behind Kagiso Rabada at number six.

Tahir’s haul of 149 wickets in ODI cricket comes at an economy rate of 4.67 runs per over. It’s good enough for the man who’s prone to bursts of sprinting to nowhere, in particular, every time he takes a wicket.

Tahir has been in good form for Durham in the Vitality Blast in the UK recently and put in some solid performances for Guyana Amazon Warriors in the Caribbean Premier League. The Warriors lost in the final of 2018’s edition.

Tahir will be 40 years old by the time the World Cup comes around next May to July. Which would make him the oldest player to represent South Africa at a Cricket World Cup since Omar Henry in 1992 - not that age is much of a factor for a spin bowler in the short format of the game. John Traicos, an off-spinner (who also played Test cricket for South Africa in 69/70) turned out for Zimbabwe at the 1992 World Cup at the tender age of 45. And then there was the Netherlands who brought their golden oldies Flavian Aponso (44) and Nolan Clarke (48) to the 1996 World Cup in the UK.

Tahir is no old man, but his journey has been long and arduous at times, though never filled with doubt or devoid of spirit because if there is ever a man who loves to play for his adoptive country, it’s Tahir. And there’s a reason why.His life could have been very different.

Growing up in Lahore, Pakistan, Tahir had few career or life prospects. He was forced to start working to support his family at the age of 16.

When he wasn’t playing cricket, he spent his time as a salesman in a local shopping mall. Fortunately, his cricketing talent got him into the Pakistan under-19 team (including a 1999 tour to South Africa where he first met his future wife, Sumayya Dildar) and eventually the Pakistan A team. But when competing against legendary spinners like Saeed Ajmal and Saqlain Mushtaq, he wasn’t quite good enough to make the Pakistan national team.

With love in his heart, he arrived in South Africa in 2006 after a short stint on the UK county cricket circuit, for Yorkshire and Middlesex.

The Titans welcomed him and his friend Gulam Bodi helped him settle in.

Bodi, an India-born and naturalised South African, would have understood the cultural shifts Tahir had to make to impact the local cricket fraternity. But South Africa were in desperate need of quality spinners at the time.

There was more struggle to come for Tahir as his attempts to breach another national set-up proved more difficult than anticipated.

He struggled professionally and financially over the following few years, and it was only until 2010 that he was called up for the Test against England in South Africa. Except, his call-up was premature.

He wasn’t quite eligible to play for South Africa yet and so had to be dropped from the squad a day later, only to return in 2011 against Australia in Cape Town when he met the criteria.

“When we made the decision, it wasn’t easy for any of us. I wanted to achieve something in life. I knew that I had the talent and wanted to play at the highest level. It was hard for the first couple of years in SA. We were thinking differently, but both of us remained positive,” Tahir told Times of India.

Tahir also has the dubious honour of having the worst bowling figures in the history of Test cricket – conceding 0/260 against Australia in Adelaide in 2012.

It’s a statistic Tahir probably never thinks about, and why would he? He’s not the most naturally gifted cricketer around, but his passion for life and hard work has paid off many times already. With a World Cup looming, South Africa will need plenty of that in the months to come.

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