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Whatever happened to Imran Tahir?

Imran Tahir
by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

South Africa just beat a West Indies T20I side, that could well defeat an all-time T20I XI, 3-2 in a bilateral series with their spinners playing a key role, yet the spinner that revolutionised the art in the South African side is no longer part of their plans.

Last year, ICC had seven nominees for the Men’s T20I Player of the Decade and Imran Tahir was one of them. Rashid Khan went on to win the award, but Tahir, whose last T20I appearance for South Africa came in March 2019, was a strong contender for the award given his outstanding record.

Tahir isn’t any ordinary leg-spinner. It’s fair to say that he created the brand of the modern-day leg-spinners that teams bulk-produce these days. At a time when T20 was still welcoming slower bowlers, Tahir carved a place for himself, in a team that has always been reluctant to see spinners as frontline attacking bowling options.

Contrary to conventional leg-spinners, Tahir relied on his googlies, bowled quickish leg-breaks, and attacked the stumps a lot more. It became a template for modern T20 spinners to follow, so much so that during the 2019 ODI World Cup, Ish Sodhi commented that if there was a WhatsApp group of leg-spinners, Tahir would probably be the president.

He wasn’t off the mark with that statement. Before Tahir, leg-spinners weren’t fashionable in T20s, and even if it’s a stretch to say he was the pioneer the world over, he definitely played a role in changing how South Africans saw their spinners. However, in the last two years, Tahir hasn’t appeared for the Proteas in the format, despite clearly expressing his desire to play on in T20Is at the time of his ODI retirement.

In July 2020, Tahir tweeted out his intentions to play in the T20 World Cup yet another time. “My aim is to give all I have to see SA winning a T20 WC,” he tweeted.

There were no signs of a return to the T20I setup, though, and hardly even a mention of his name until recently before the West Indies tour. Graeme Smith, the CSA Director of Cricket hinted that the “free agents” (referring to Tahir and Morris) could make a return to the T20I set up ahead of the T20 World Cup.

He also spoke of a possible return for AB de Villiers but in the end, neither materialised.

It’s not that Tahir’s numbers aren’t appealing enough suddenly. It has always been. Since 2017, and until his last T20I in 2019, Tahir had taken 18 wickets in eight T20Is for South Africa, averaging 11.00 with the ball and conceding runs at an economy rate of 6.86. This included two incredible five-wicket hauls as well.

He’s struggled for game time in the IPL at Chennai Super Kings after being the leading wicket-taker in the 2019 edition of the league with 26 wickets. His reduced role in the franchise has more to do with how CSK’s team is made up than Tahir’s own performances.

He picked up 15 wickets in 11 matches in the Caribbean Premier League in 2020 and finished the 2020 and 2021 PSL seasons with 11 and 13 wickets respectively at impressive economy rates. In short, even at 42, Tahir keeps chugging down wickets and doing what he had been doing all the while.

To be fair, Shamsi has more than justified the call to make him the leading spinner in the shortest format of the game. By the time the Proteas travelled to West Indies last month, Shamsi was the No.1 ranked T20I bowler in the world according to ICC rankings. Among bowlers to bowl in 25 innings in T20Is since 2019, no one has a better economy rate than Shamsi’s 6.43. He ended the West Indies series with seven wickets, the most by a South African bowler, at a stunning economy rate of 4.00.

Shamsi’s rise has been phenomenal and South Africa cannot do without him in the setup now. It might be that South Africa have moved on from Tahir too. Last week, their former analyst Prasanna Raman tweeted out that Tahir has played his last game for the Proteas already.

While it has nothing to do with his performances, it could be that South Africa have found in Shamsi, Tahir’s understudy at one time, their leading T20I spinner.

Even with George Linde, Keshav Maharaj and Bjorn Fortuin also in the setup, Tahir’s inclusion would only spice up their spin stocks for the T20 World Cup. However, if Tahir actually has to play in the final XI, it will need a massive overhaul of their current T20I bowling attack. Anrich Nortje, Tabraiz Shamsi, Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada are all proper tail-enders who cannot bat higher than No.8 at best. Tahir is from the same category unlike the other spinners mentioned earlier, who have better batting capabilities than Tahir.

With Shamsi a certainty in the line-up, if South Africa are to play Tahir, they will need to sit out one of their three frontline quicks. That’s unlikely to happen unless they hand a return to Chris Morris, who can bat at No.7, and be a frontline fast bowler.

All said and done, Tahir’s incredible journey has served as an inspiration to several leg-spinners around the world, and even at 42, as he keeps going strong, there’s still the odd chance that he might make a comeback for the T20 World Cup to forge a spin partnership with Shamsi. Given it’s Tahir and South Africa, a bond so strong that he gave up his career in Pakistan, you never know.


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