Cricketers’ journeys to the top are rarely straightforward, yet not many have been as arduous, or passed through as many dressing rooms, as that taken by Imran Tahir.
Between representing Pakistan in the ICC Under-19 World Cup in South Africa in 1999 and playing for the Proteas against the land of his birth 18 years later as arguably the best white-ball bowler in world cricket, there have been many obstacles and setbacks, times when the cricket world has chuckled at him, but none of them have been enough to derail his self-belief nor dampen his famous wicket celebration.
Back in May 2005, the 26-year-old from Lahore was in his seventh season of English club cricket – a recent debutant for Pakistan A, still dreaming of picking up a county contract after a couple of failed trails – when an unexpected visitor turned up to watch him playing in rural Staffordshire. National coach Bob Woolmer came to reassure Imran that he was very much in his thoughts, and the leg-spinner duly played in a Greens-versus-Whites trial match that winter, then against the post-2005 Ashes England tourists, but full international honours never came.
“I respected Bob a lot,” says Tahir, “and he really wanted to give me a chance to play international cricket. On the other side, time was going quite quick and I was worrying that I wasn’t going to achieve the goals I’d set for my life and my career.”
With his future starting to pan out as alternating seasons in Pakistani first-class and English club cricket, the third corner of Tahir’s cricketing triangle opened up a new pathway. During that Under-19 World Cup, he had fallen for a girl from Durban, Sumaya Dildar, with whom he’d remained in touch as she finished her studies in Engineering. Dildar’s father agreed to Imran’s proposal of marriage, but his new wife wasn’t keen on relocating to Pakistan. So a trial was arranged with Northerns Titans franchise in Pretoria, whose coach Richard Pybus immediately liked what he saw, while in 2008 Tahir finally made a splash in county cricket, taking record debut figures for Hampshire (12 wickets for 189).
Nevertheless, it wasn’t all plain sailing from there. The slow process of qualification for South Africa, coupled with solid performances for Titans, had sent expectation levels among his new compatriots soaring. Here, finally, they thought, was the mystery spinner to complete the jigsaw, to turn the team of Smith, Kallis, Amla, De Villiers, Steyn, Morkel, Boucher et al into world cricket’s indisputable top dogs. But things didn’t work out. Not in Test cricket, anyway, culminating in a mauling at the hands of Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey in Adelaide in late 2012: 37-1-260-0, the most expensive wicketless match analysis in Test history.
It might all have buried another man, particularly in the precision-engineered profession of leg-spin. Yet the spindly Tahir is made of deceptively strong stuff, and for all his red-ball travails, he has proven himself a white-ball wizard, his wicket-taking threat in the middle overs – also a key part of his contribution to Rising Pune Supergiant coming within one hit of winning this year’s IPL – has been a fundamental part of South Africa’s ascent to No.1 in the ODI rankings. And in tandem with the team’s rise, he has become the world’s top-ranked bowler in both ODI and T20 formats, albeit recently ceding top spot in the longer format to Kagiso Rabada.
Asked to explain his improvement, Tahir pinpoints the preparation for the 2014 ICC World T20 as crucial, both in terms of ironing out technical slackness and in building the confidence that has made him unquestionably the Proteas go-to white-ball bowler.
“I had two months off before that tournament, learning about my variations, bowling my sliders, flippers, googlies, toppies, leggies. Sumaya used to stand in the back of the net and throw me the ball back. I finished [joint] leading wicket-taker in that tournament, which gave me a lot of belief.
“Also, because I’ve been bowling in the nets to such great players – AB, Hashim, Quinton, Faf – obviously you get a lot of confidence from that too. The feedback about your pace and line is really good. You get zero fear because you know if you can bowl to these guys then you can bowl to anyone in world cricket.”
For all the stellar batting – JP Duminy and David Miller can be added to the list – Tahir is arguably the most irreplaceable cog in a formidable-looking machine that is widely fancied to do well in this ICC Champions Trophy, an assessment with which the leg-spinner agrees.
“Coming into such a big competition as world No.1 is some achievement for us, but the brand of cricket we’ve been playing, we deserve to be where we are. I believe we are the favourites, and if we keep playing the way we are then I believe we’ll do something special.”
Despite a couple of sticky patches in both opening powerplays against Sri Lanka, South Africa ultimately proved far too strong, with Tahir’s 4-27 – and a direct hit run out that so surprised him he forgot to celebrate – earning him the Player of the Match award. Another victory against Pakistan, and passage to the semi-finals will be all but assured.
Tahir’s chest-thumping, badge-kissing love for South Africa is genuine, and he describes it as “an absolute honour to play for this team”. So there will be no room for split loyalties.
And yet, perhaps because of the nature of his cricketing journey, he isn’t a man who forgets where he came from. He regularly drops in at his old clubs in the Staffordshire leagues, and retains a soft spot for Pakistan, too, although that didn’t stop him taking the best figures of a modest Test career, 5-32, in an innings victory over Pakistan in Dubai. And it probably won’t be enough to stop him running to Birmingham city centre should he sneak a wrong-un through Sarfraz Ahmed.