Carpe Diem: one of the most well known and widely adopted mottos in a sport in which the beating butterfly wings of a minor event – a dropped catch, an injured colleague, a poor umpiring decision – can be amplified into something career-defining.
Although the forthcoming series is an important step in Imran Tahir’s embryonic Test career, it is premature to suggest that the tour is make-or-break. His new country has simply invested too much in him – emotionally in the case of fans long hoping for a mystery spinner to complement their batting and pace-bowling stocks; strategically and materially in the case of Cricket South Africa, for whom the Lahore-born leg-spinner was seen as the missing piece in the jigsaw – for that to be the case.
Nevertheless, after a slow start in Test cricket (18 wickets at 37 in seven matches), the longer he goes without success, the more difficult it will become to slot his feet under the table, the pressure that comes from a sports-mad South African public, from the media, from teammates’ gestures or from within himself all unlikely to transmit calm to someone who, perfectly understandably, might be trying too hard to succeed.
Deliberately or inadvertently, the spotlight on Tahir may have intensified as a result of Michael Vaughan’s tweet a few weeks back: “
bowling attack is the best in the world. Would not swap it for any other. Not
SA. Swann is the difference. Cheers”. Some high-profile Englishmen are well
aware of the danger he carries, however: Ian Bell’s hundred to win the CB40
last year only just eclipsed the leg-spinner’s 5 for 41, while Kevin Pietersen
was sufficiently impressed during a brief stint playing for Dolphins in
November 2010 to call his teammate “world class”. England
For all the hopes and expectations that the 33-year-old rookie could help transform the Proteas into the world’s best Test side, so far has he come so quickly that it is easy to forget that just four years ago he was still unable to find a county willing to take him on, following unsuccessful trials with Yorkshire, Middlesex, Durham, and Sussex. When he was finally picked up, by Hampshire in July 2008, he was playing his tenth season of club cricket in
wheeling away uncomplainingly, bagging five-fors for Moddershall CC in the
North Staffordshire & South Cheshire League, a competition he had
terrorized for nine of those seasons, even breaking Gary Sobers’s 40-year-old
record for most wickets (104) in 2002. England
If the KIA Oval – venue for the first Test, and likely to provide the most spin-friendly surface of this truncated heavyweight series – is indeed to be a crossroads for this amiable purveyor of the game’s most beguiling and difficult art, then the most compelling reason for him to succeed could be simple karma: a reward from the cricketing gods, or whichever force bestows good fortune, for the phenomenal loyalty and dedication of his exploits during that summer of 2008, both for Hampshire and Moddershall.
When the Hawks swooped for their exotic new overseas player, Moddershall were in the thick of a surprise title challenge, jostling with Longton (pro: Nathan Astle), Knypersley (Lonwabo Tsotsobe), Audley (‘Rusty’ Theron) and favourites Leek, who were using sub pros having been moved to terminate the contract of Bajan tearaway Tino Best for accusing the umpires of racial bias in their adjudications. Given that the previous two years had been spent flirting with relegation, Tahir’s long-awaited county breakthrough was something of a bittersweet moment for the club explained former teammate Andy Hawkins, the man who signed him: “On the one hand, we were delighted he finally got his chance, but were also gutted for ourselves because league regulations and stringent UK Border Authority visa controls meant that good quality sub pro’s were very, very difficult to find. It looked as though the challenge was over”.
Enter the honourable Tahir’s extraordinary commitment and determination on two fronts. While his 44 wickets at 16.7 each in seven games – including a county record 12 for 189 on debut at Old Trafford – helped rescue Hampshire from the precipice of relegation, he was also desperate not to abandon a club for which he’d played in both 2004 and 2005. As it transpired, the fixture list and his devotion to the cause meant that he only ended up missing two of Moddershall’s final nine games.
Hawkins said: “His efforts and general keenness to get back were immense. One week, he phoned on Thursday afternoon, Day 2 of a Championship game at Southampton, and told us not to get a sub pro as they’d ‘definitely be finished by tomorrow’. Hampshire won, he drove up to Stoke that night, took 7-for and slogged 48, then shot off to Taunton for a game on Sunday – a 350-mile round trip!”
|Immy on debut for Hampshire, July 2008|
* * *
If this all smacks of the type of pre-series bluff mastered by a third famous overseas wrist-spinner to have called the Rose Bowl home then that in itself is a positive sign that he is coming to terms with the less mercurial, more guileful facets of his art. For the criticism of him thus far has been that he lacks patience, that he overuses his variations – a common trait among those whose provenance come from tapeball cricket, with its ironic promotion of the explosive over the streetwise, the ruminative (and a ‘bomber’ mentality that can be detected in the speed with which he gets through an over, an over-eagerness perhaps also manifest in him running on the pitch) – and thus that he releases pressure too readily, pressure that he is sometimes even unaware he has created.
If there is a page out of any leg-spinner’s book you want to take, it is, of course, Shane Warne’s (from the cricketing chapters, at least). With the Victorian stood at the top of his run, every ball was pregnant with possibility – and the more it wasn’t, the more he would ensure that it would appear so in the mind of his adversary. SK Warne – an anagram of which was what most English batsmen of the era thought of his ilk – was not only a brilliant bowler technically, combining intimidating amounts of spin with a level of accuracy that was practically obscene in such an aggressive bowler; he also had a preternatural understanding of a batsman’s thought processes, routinely interfered with by both an exceptional tactical brain and native flair for the verbal barbs and theatrics of psychological warfare. It was a trident that meant he scarcely encountered any conditions or circumstances in which he was unable to find a way of discomfiting the batsman.
If that sort of stagecraft and showmanship is impossible to teach (although, presumably the Proteas will have an idea who can and cannot pick his googly, allowing the team to create some theatre with red-herring fields and immediate pressure, providing he can get the first ball right), Tahir could certainly learn from the way Warne thought his way through situations, often setting precise and unusual fields, and always using the crease intelligently. And there was never a rush, either between balls or to unfurl his variations.
|a difficult start|
Warne paused at the top of his approach not only to get in the batters’ heads, but also to make sure he knew what he wanted to happen: imagining not so much the ball he wanted to bowl as the shot he wanted the batsman to play. A subtle distinction. He would also often set 4/5 fields to right-handers, reckoning that on scruffy, low-bouncing pitches, with his devilish drift across the batter’s eyes, it was just as hard to force him away square on the offside as through mid-wicket – the latter fraught with across-the-line risk; the former only potentially run-scoring if some room were engineered or a minor error in line or length opened it up.
The high priest of angles, Duncan Fletcher, would tell you that delivering almost every ball from mid-crease, as Tahir does, is playing into the hands of batsmen yearning for familiarity and regularity, like those led compulsively and obsessively to alphabetize their CDs. Instead, he could inject much greater potency to his less effective leg-break – especially in a DRS-dominated universe – by continuing to seek to land this delivery on middle-and-off stump (it doesn’t really drift, à la Warne), yet delivering the ball from wider of the crease and thus ensuring that, after pitching, the line of the ball is threatening the stumps, and the front pad, rather than spinning away toward slip. This angle also means that the batsman, whether ‘picking’ him or not, would be drawn into playing at more deliveries.
In the attempt to understand why it might not yet quite have happened for Tahir at Test level, we can point up the seamer-friendly pitches that have aided his co-debutant in Cape Town last November, Vernon Philander, to take 51 wickets over the same seven-game period (they have played six times together), but it is also legitimate to ask whether Graeme Smith has set sympathetic fields. Is a standard left-arm spinner’s 6/3 fitting for a bowler whose chief weapon is a spitting, accurate googly (with a flipper for the tail and/or the imprecise of footwork)?
Maybe not. But this is always two-way street. Tahir must earn the confidence of Smith: before he can attack, he must find a way of staying in the attack (much in the same way that Graeme Swann is lauded for his first innings holding role, providing twenty-five overs a day on unresponsive pitches, if necessary). This faith from his captain ought then allow him to relax and bowl, rather than pushing too much and rushing things – the butterfly wings of one good innings, maybe just one key wicket at the Oval, could furnish him with that intangible sense of belonging and a foothold for the final stages of his globetrotting career.
Hawkins has seen him bowl for over a decade, and supports the view that “he needs to be patient, bowl within the team pattern, and bring out his variations judiciously. If he does, and the pitches offer bounce and some spin, he’ll be a handful. Whatever happens, he’ll always be a legend up here – for his attitude as much as his wickets”.
Certainly, there will be plenty up at Moddershall CC hoping that their former professional’s humility and dedication can be rewarded with the opportunity to unfurl that infectious celebration, plenty hoping that ‘Immy’ can finally kickstart his Test career, even if it costs their countrymen a series win. Some bonds are deeper than mere nationality.
Oh, and the Moddershall club motto? Why, Carpe Diem, of course.