Cricket: England v South Africa

Tahir follows career path full of twists and turns

South Africa's Pakistan-born legspinner has forged his reputation playing for 10 different sides on three continents

Tahir follows career path full of twists and turns

Back in 2007 Cricket on Five’s Geoffrey Boycott brought an obscure Pakistani leg-break bowler into the Yorkshire side for a vital end-of-season game against Sussex. He went for 141 runs off 37 wicket-less overs and Yorkshire fans pilloried Boycott for his disastrous decision.

But Boycott is rarely wrong in his assessment of a cricketer’s potential and he had seen something in Imran Tahir’s bowling. And in the long run, Boycott’s judgment has been proved correct. Tahir has risen from obscurity to become an integral part of the South African side.  

Born in Pakistan, his first-class career began in 1996 but after touring Sri Lanka with their A side in 2005 he turned his back on the country of his birth and began a new life in South Africa. This was the start of a qualifying period which culminated in him being available for South Africa in 2010.

Some Pakistani fans have labelled Tahir a “cricket mercenary” who plays for the highest bidder, but the truth is more romantic. Tahir left Pakistan not for money but for love. His South African wife was simply not keen on life in Asia and wanted to return home.

The impression of a mercenary cricketer has been exacerbated by Tahir’s peripatetic lifestyle. Few modern cricketers have played for so many professional teams -  at least 10 in total on three continents.

In South Africa, he played for the Titans until 2009, but then joined the Dolphins in 2010. And in England, his has wandered far and wide in an effort to develop his game. He spent part of the 2003 season on Middlesex’s books, but didn’t play a county game. Then, in 2004 and 2005, he had spells in minor counties cricket for Staffordshire, before the ill-fated game for Yorkshire in 2007.

But Tahir is a determined character and all the time he was developing his bag of tricks and his control. Finally, in 2008, Hampshire plucked him from obscurity – at least as far as English fans were concerned – and he took 12 wickets in his first Championship game against Lancashire. He has not looked back. In the last seven games of the 2008 season for Hampshire he took 44 wickets at 16.7.  

Since then, Tahir has spent winters in South Africa and summers in county cricket learning to adapt to English conditions. In both 2009 (for Hampshire) and 2010 (for Warwickshire – Hampshire made other plans because they expected him to be playing international cricket) he took more than 50 first-class wickets, and managed 28 at 24.5 in a shortened season for Hampshire last year. But his priority was always to spend enough time in South Africa to qualify for the national side.

Tahir made his Test debut against Australia in November 2011. In seven Tests to date, he has not set the world on fire, managing two or three wickets per game with an economy rate of 3.25. His best figures for South Africa – 4 for 31 – were in the rain-affected warm up-game against Kent. These were not the ideal conditions for a legspinner, but his success showed his knowledge of English pitches, however unfavourable to spin they are.

England’s preparations will have focused on South Africa’s world-class pace attack and Five commentator Michael Vaughan has suggested that England try to target Tahir. But they will underestimate him at their peril.

Tahir plays his best cricket in England and when he isn’t bowling he is a complete livewire in the field, bouncing around taking catches and slogging away merrily at number 11. His character is the polar opposite to Graeme Swann’s cool persona, but he has the nous and variations to match his English counterpart ball for ball.  

Whether he can use his knowledge of the conditions to finally make his mark at Test level remains to be seen. But if he pulls it off at least one member of Cricket on Five’s commentary team will be thinking, if not saying, “I told you so”.