Sunday, 29 May 2011

IMRAN TAHIR, PIONEER


Google ‘cricket + South Africa + jigsaw’ and you will probably find the face of Imran Tahir, the Lahore-born leg-spinner whose long and tortuous road to international cricket finally ended with an impressive outing at the World Cup, during which he picked up 14 wickets in five games at an exceptional economy rate of 3.79. 

Arguably the most eagerly anticipated international debutant since Kevin Pietersen, briefly a teammate at KwaZulu-Natal’s Dolphins, Tahir’s 12-year wait for higher honours was extended by a further 12 months when he was hastily withdrawn from selection for the final Test against England in January 2010 on account of…well, not yet actually being South African. “That was a big disappointment. It was another year gone for me,” said the 32-year-old. “But maybe it was not the right time”.

A further year of red tape ensued until finally he was eligible, having long been ready… Only the selectors decided to hide him from India throughout their pre-World Cup ODI series. “They picked me to get used to the atmosphere of international cricket, which helped me a lot”.

Tahir denies that the sense of expectation, or the fact that he was Pakistani-born, created any extra pressure. “I had thousands of supportive phone calls, including from Pakistan. The coach and captain here made me feel very comfortable. So, I never felt outside pressure, really”.

Remarkably, three years ago Tahir was still an unknown, plying his trade for Moddershall in the North Staffordshire & South Cheshire League, but a successful trial and record debut figures of 12 for 187 for Hampshire in July 2008 were what convinced him he could play at the highest level: “that was the moment I thought ‘if I can do well here I can take any step’”.

Of course, cynics have suggested that Tahir’s naturalisation was all a bit too convenient – his path to the Pakistani side was blocked by Danish Kaneria; South Africa had their perennial need for an attacking spinner – but he is quick to remind us that this is no marriage of convenience. Anything but.

Having fallen in love with his now-wife, Sumayya, during the Under-19 World Cup in 1998, he kept the flames alive through a series of long-distance phone calls until it became clear that the future Mrs Tahir did not want to live in the country of her forefathers. So, Imran went to South Africa: “I had a dream to play for Pakistan but I had to sacrifice everything for her. I am sure I made the right decision. I had good intentions and God helped me”.

One country’s loss is another’s gain, however, and having seen on TV that the Pakistani selectors had expressed regret about letting him go, he had no time to lament not playing for his homeland. “It’s too late. This is my country now and I’m a proud South African. I’m grateful to CSA for giving me the opportunity to make my name in international cricket”.

Following another (albeit truncated) campaign with Hampshire, an October Test engagement with Australia looms, which would be another “chance to repay the country” for this humble and skilful leggie from Durban.