Cape Town – Leg-spin is a particularly difficult trade, and the very best exponents go off the boil at times.
The Proteas, under the cosh at 0-2 down in the five-match one-day international series against England, will fervently wish for Imran Tahir to come out of a rare personal trough period at Centurion on Tuesday (13:30 start).
It would be grossly unfair to suggest, frankly, that Tahir is suddenly a spent force, though the temptation to do so might well be based quite strongly around his advanced age – he turns 37 in late March and is beginning to look that bit more cumbersome than before in the field (he has never been the proverbial hare at the best of times).
The flamboyant, Pakistani-born journeyman has been a vital element of South Africa’s limited-overs plans for a period very rapidly approaching five full years, when you consider that he made his debut against West Indies at Delhi at the end of February in the 2011 World Cup and promptly bagged 4/41 in a big win.
Since then Tahir has doubled as a precious wicket-taker in the middle phase of opponents’ innings, whilst keeping a commendable lid on the run rate too.
His career stats from 51 ODIs speak for themselves: 86 wickets at 24.00 (strike rate 31.2, economy rate 4.60). You will struggle to find many other Proteas spinners who have come close in the 50-overs environment.
Under the circumstances, Tahir has started the current series inexplicably badly, having been walloped in both Bloemfontein (10-0-71-2) and Port Elizabeth (10-0-66-0), the latter on a rather more helpful pitch for him although he struggled to land the ball routinely in one place, if at all.
You could say a worrisome pattern of expensive analyses has come to the fore, because in the last two games of the series in India – where the Proteas nevertheless earned a brilliant 3-2 triumph – he also suffered a bit in run concession.
If you latch all four most recent appearances together, Tahir has gone for roughly six-and-a-half runs to the over or more each time, well above his customary concession rate.
Still, he had some bad luck at St George’s Park, where several borderline appeals didn’t go his way and inside edges off his bowling, for example, wouldn’t disturb the stumps or lofted drives would fall short of or just beyond fieldsmen.
It was only the eighth time in 50 bowling stints in ODIs that Tahir has gone wicketless.
It is quite possible that he is simply not getting the rub of the green at present, and also that England are shrewdly, consciously targeting him quickly to unsettle his rhythm and general wellbeing.
The Proteas do need his fortunes to change considerably for the better at SuperSport Park, not always the most fertile terrain for his particular craft but also a venue that shouldn’t cause him any special fear.
Tahir has bowled in two completed prior ODIs at the Centurion ground, with South Africa winning each time – against Pakistan in November 2013 and more recently against New Zealand in August 2015, when he produced a decent analysis of 10-0-40-2.
A return to both scalp-grabbing and tight-discipline qualities by the leggie on Tuesday would possibly also make life a little easier for part-time off-spinner JP Duminy, who is desperately in need of greater control and influence himself.
Tahir and Duminy are the only spinning options in the current SA squad, when you consider that the occasional leg-breaks of Faf du Plessis appear to have vanished into thin air.
The duo must come to the party immediately to help stave off the prospect that this series ends with as many as two disappointing dead-rubber affairs ...
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