TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
SOUTH Africa have arrived in New Zealand as the No. 1 one-day team and with four of their top six ranked among the leading seven batsmen in the format.
But only two of their bowlers are in the top seven – Kagiso Rabada and a Rawalpindi-born enigma who turns 38 next month and is the top-ranked bowler in both short formats.
Imran Tahir is perhaps the single biggest reason South Africa have won all 11 ODIs they have played, all of them at home, since September.
And that’s even though he didn’t play in two – Tahir has infused South Africa’s short-format play with uncommon intensity and determination.
In a national cricket culture policed by pacemen and in a format designed to deify batsmen, a champion wrist spinner makes no sense.
Except in the only sense that matters: Tahir gets people out and doesn’t go for too many runs.
“A lot of spinners only peak late in their career, and that’s got a lot to do with the experience they pick up,” South Africa’s spin consultant, Claude Henderson, said.
“‘Immi’ has probably been at his best the last two years because of the experience he’s got, the skill he’s grooved over the years.
“He knows exactly what works for him, especially in the one-day format.
“He understands wickets, he understands the variations, he understands the opposition, and he’s calm under pressure because of the experience.”
Tahir took 37 wickets in the 22 ODIs he played in 2015 and 27 in 15 last year.
He has played only five in 2017 but already his haul is up to 10 scalps.
In his six years as a bowler in ODIs, Tahir has conceded more than five runs an over in a year only in 2016 – when he seemed to emerge fully as a master of his art.
Some of his most ardent supporters are in South Africa’s dugout.
“We’re all on the edge of our seats when he bowls,” Henderson said.
“It’s exciting to see – all the variations, the way he sums things up, his excitement when he gets wickets.
“It’s selling tickets.”
Henderson was also impressed with what the rest of us couldn’t see.
“‘Immi’ is very open for any discussion around spin bowling,” Henderson said.
“He’s very open to young guys coming to the nets.
“He’s a lovely guy to have in the team.
“He loves the team, he loves the environment. It’s his family.
“He loves spin. It’s his passion.
“But his hunger is what amazes me most.”
And that at an age when most players feel a new creak in their bones every other day.
“People look at somebody’s age and think, ‘Wow, this guy’s getting too old for his trade’,” Henderson said.
“There shouldn’t be an age to it – it’s the experience combined with the hunger for success.
“Those variations have taken time to get and he’s learnt a lot over the past few years.”
If he stays hungry, there’ll be still more to learn – and more wickets to take in the T20 in Auckland on Friday, which will be followed in Hamilton on Sunday by the first of five ODIs.