Proteas and their Peter Pan in search of Neverland

The Proteas frowned on the art of spin bowling until they found a man who could spin them out of sticky situations. More than that, Imran Tahir has revolutionised spin bowling in South African cricket.

When South Africa were deadlocked against Sri Lanka in a Twenty20 (T20) international at Newlands in March and required a sudden-death Super Over to settle the contest, the captain didn’t hesitate to throw the ball to the slowest bowler in the team.

With the ICC Cricket World Cup on the horizon, it was a minor and inconsequential affair. But the symbolism of that gesture encapsulated the impact a man who came to South Africa for personal love has had on a game loved by millions across his adopted land.

Scrap the adopted, actually, because he sees himself and carries himself as a man of this rainbow-coloured soil. For the best part of a decade, Imran Tahir, 40, has been South African limited overs cricket’s Peter Pan. He has infected a notoriously conservative approach with his enthusiasm, delighting with his bottomless bag of tricks.

Quite how a leg spinner in South African colours grew to become the most influential bowler in a cricketing culture steeped in speed is a beautiful mystery. Tahir has been an assault on the senses, his influence turning the least tolerated art form in South Africa into one of the most celebrated.

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“If I have helped to change the thinking towards spin bowling in any way, then I am very proud to have that as a legacy. I just love taking wickets for my country, and to have been able to do so for this long is a dream,” he said.

“I am very proud to wear this shirt,” Tahir beamed, as South Africa put the finishing touches to their preparations for the World Cup.

Now a father, Tahir is more reflective than before. The little things mean more: the get-togethers, the optional practices and the team meals.

“It is time,” he smiled.

The Pakistan-born star that even India loves

Away from the bright lights, “Little Immy” is now at an inquisitive age when he wants his dad around, twirling in the back garden with him. Tahir wants that, too, which is why he is at peace with calling time on his 50-over commitments.

Of course, T20 leagues around the world will knock at his door for a while yet, because the likes of Tahir and Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan bring that extra helping of stardust to games. They do wicked things with a piece of leather and the world loves them for it.

When he spoke to New Frame, Tahir had just returned from a talismanic display in the Indian Premier League for the Chennai Super Kings, where the novelty of an Indian audience lauding a Pakistan-born star has worn off wonderfully. As he does everywhere he goes, Tahir has spun his way into Chennai hearts, his heritage no longer a bone of cultural contention.

In the midst of one of the world’s most enduring rivalries and most volatile relationships – where border patrols glare at each other on a daily basis – Tahir might be one of the few people to elicit smiles from both sides.

“Everywhere I go, I just try to do my best. And also to try and share what I know from all the years of playing,” he said.

Passing on the baton

It sounds simple, but when one considers that Tahir has literally played around the world, it is an exhaustive exercise to try and unpack all that knowledge. Fellow South African Tabraiz Shamsi has tried, over copious amounts of food and chai. As they have broken bread, they have sought to break down the barriers that usually face a wrist spinner in South Africa.

“Shammo [Shamsi] is ready. He has been bowling very well for several years now and I try to help him as much as I can,” said Tahir.

For all the help he has volunteered, he and Shamsi are still rivals for a position that usually goes to just one spinner – except for those rare occurrences when South African selectors throw caution to the wind and go into the dance with two wrist-spinners.

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Tahir has encouraged Shamsi to bowl with pace and passion and no fear, because that is the lot of the attacking spinner. He has sought to help him develop a thick skin as the modern way dictates that any bowler will come in for tap – with the game weighted towards batsmen nowadays, getting smashed all over the field is inevitable.

For Tahir, there is no jealous guarding of his throne against the eager youngsters. Tahir knows better than that. He is Peter Pan, of course, supping from life’s cup of eternal exuberance. But he knows that even Pan’s magic eventually has to run dry, and someone else will be the spark.

What an act to follow, though.

Hit him for six and he bounces right back, ready to rip one past the edge and follow it up with a glare from 22 yards. And then, when he does account for a batsman, Tahir’s trademark has been his gleeful bounding to Neverland. Tailender or titan, his celebration is just as energetic.

Driven by passion

“We don’t bother chasing him anymore. We wait for him to come back,” India’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni said of the Chennai Super Kings’ attitude to Tahir’s excess of success.

Now, confronted with the next chapter in an enchanting narrative, Tahir wants to go out in the best way possible. In the age of Kolpaks, sabbaticals and swinging sentiments around schedules and workloads, this matters to Tahir. At 40, he still wants to play as much as possible. Bowl as much as possible.

“It is my last World Cup. I want to enjoy every moment, because I know that I will not be at this stage ever again. I still remember how exciting it was to go to my first World Cup in 2011,” he said, goosebumps mushrooming along his arm.

Around him, a few of his teammates were also on media duty, cautiously conveying an inner fire that has been building since 2015. Since 1999. Since 1992, some might argue.

This tournament has brought South Africa nothing but pain. And like everyone else, Tahir has his scars. He slumped inconsolably into an Auckland chair the last time he played a World Cup match and felt what it truly means to be a South African at a Cricket World Cup. But he knows that a win in England would be the green and gold balm to soothe all wounds.

“World Cups are different, because you have to play well at the right time. We have had some tough moments in the past but, when I look at this team, I know that we have everything we need to win it,” he said. “We know that there will be pressure, but if we can handle that and play those moments strongly, then we can go all the way.”

Returning to his old stomping ground

His favourite ground in England is the Rose Bowl, because of his memories of playing county cricket with Hampshire. Just as well for South Africa, as their tournament prospects may hinge on what happens down south.

The Proteas meet India and the West Indies in consecutive fixtures in Southampton and they will be loathe to leave themselves with too much to do after that. Tahir knows he may be called on to bowl against raging top orders, with balls flying across placid surfaces designed to produce 350-plus totals. That confrontation holds no fear for him, though, because he has spent his entire cricketing life under attack.

“The more the batsman wants to attack me, the better my chances of getting a wicket. I want him to play shots,” he said.

His is a precarious game of snake and mongoose, each capable of killing the other. But, like the mongoose, Tahir has made himself immune to the poison. He knows that he can withstand several bites, but he requires a solitary strike to win the contest.

In a world designed for batsmen and the baying mob, that is still a crumb of cricketing comfort. One strike and it’s over. South African captain Faf du Plessis has never shied away from using Tahir as his main strike bowler. He knows what Tahir has in him and it is perhaps serendipitous that they crossed paths when they did.

Now or never for a number of Proteas

Du Plessis was a leg spinner, a brilliant one at age-group level. So he knows how his star thinks. They paint on the same canvas, their strokes not in conflict but in cahoots. They have been brilliant for each other, but there is one final masterpiece they would like to paint together.

“Immy has been amazing for us. He has been a champion and a great asset. But it’s also what he brings to us in the changing room. You can see what this team means to him,” said Du Plessis.

They both know there is no place for sentimentality in cricket tournaments, however. The Proteas have a significant list of last timers at this World Cup: JP Duminy, Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, Du Plessis, Tahir… A few others might not make it to 2023 either, so there is a finality here. It’s now, or it will be never.

Against the grain, South Africa have pinned their hopes on seizing the moment with the ball. Their pace pack speaks for itself, but it is Tahir who holds the key. In him, the Proteas hope, they have the magician who can take them to that hallowed place they have not visited before.

They are hoping their Peter Pan can take them to Neverland. Never ever land.

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