Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 4th day November 25, 2012

Where to now for Imran Tahir?

The long and winding road that Imran Tahir travelled from Pakistan to England to South Africa is in danger of becoming a dead end.

When Imran Tahir left the field after the first day of the Adelaide Test, he had already conceded the most runs for any bowler who had delivered more than 20 overs in a Test. He produced spells as pleasing to the eye as a discarded banana peel: torn open, limp and greyed-over with near-rot.

In the South African change-room, all assistant coach Russell Domingo thought was appropriate to do was give Tahir a hug. Why scold him when it was so obvious he had been sub-standard? Why embarrass him when he managed that all by himself in front of thousands in the ground and millions on their couches? Tahir apparently told Domingo he would try to be better next time.

Think what you may about his ability but it's very difficult not to feel sorry for Tahir, especially because of the irony of those words. By the end of both innings he had got far worse and at times, as his repertoire of full tosses and long hops conveyed, desperately so.

Whether or not the Australian dossier was in action, their batsmen continued to attack Tahir as it said they would. He continued to fire it in flat. As a result, he did not get the same bounce from the surface that Nathan Lyon was able to extract later on.

In the second innings, Tahir thought he had earned a consolation wicket but his nasty habit of overstepping meant he only had himself to blame for being denied. He got so much wrong that when he was brought on in the 68th over to bowl at the Australian tail, the Adelaide Oval crowd cheered in jest.

He was not even spared by timing. Michael Clarke declared at the end of a Tahir over when he had conceded one run more than the previous worst ever Test figures. Tahir's 0 for 260 in the match is the most expensive without taking a wicket, one run worse than Khan Mohammed's in 1958. It's not a record Tahir will want to be reminded of in future.

For a confident and proud man, to have been reduced to such ignominy will hurt. Before the match, Graeme Smith said adding Tahir to the XI was a no-brainer for team management. They did not even consider the left-armer Robin Peterson as an option. "Imran is our frontline spinner and we back him," Smith said. To have a conviction so strong placed in you and not live up to it can only be damaging.

Tahir has been shunned by many viewers of this Test but will likely not receive the same treatment from his team. Morne Morkel was sincere when he said he felt "so sorry" for Tahir because "he has been working really hard". Morkel believes Tahir's big haul is "around the corner."

Faf du Plessis spent many seasons with Tahir at the Titans and had the same reaction. "We back Immi 100%. I've played a lot of cricket with him and I am not just saying this because it's what you should say about a team-mate. I know what he can do," du Plessis said. "I am a legspinner too and I know sometimes your hand feels like a claw when you try and grip the ball. He is a fantastic spinner and I back him to the hilt."

Tahir will need support like that especially because the winding road he travelled from Pakistan to England to South Africa to live a dream now looks like a dead end. In a broader sense though, his long-term inclusion and impact on the balance of the South African side will have to be questioned.

Since making his debut 11 Tests ago, Tahir's contribution has been minimal. He also has not had much opportunity to make a significant impact. In matches at home, in New Zealand and England he did not once have a surface which suited his skills. Still there were occasions when he got wickets at important times, like his dismissal of Matt Prior at The Oval and Jonny Bairstow at Lord's against England.

He added to the dressing-room culture in a positive way. His enthusiasm could never be questioned. He visibly improved his fielding and batting when he was told to and his passionate wicket-taking celebrations, while rare, were special.

The attack was heralded as the best in the world with him in it, because he provided another option. Instead of South Africa's stock spinner, usually someone whose main role was to dry up an end, Tahir was also tasked with attacking. The issue came in because with everyone in the unit being an attacking bowler, one of them had to get attacked back. That one was Tahir.

A holding bowler is a much under-rated concept but in the Adelaide Test South Africa could have used one. Even when the quicks were bowling with some control, Tahir still conceded at more than six runs to the over. It left South African fans harking back to the days of Paul Harris or baying for the inclusion Peterson instead.

Harris was often disparaged as nothing more than mediocre but he played an important part in South Africa's building to No.1. Control is not glamorous but it is necessary and Harris proved that. With it being unlikely that Harris will have a second coming - he does not even have a national contract anymore - Peterson could come into the frame as an immediate replacement.

It would mean a rethink of the strategy that saw a change in South Africa's spin mindset. In some ways, it could even be a reversal of that strategy. Since Tahir was earmarked for bigger things, aggressive-minded spinners across the franchise system saw themselves as in with more of a chance.

Simon Harmer from the Warriors was the leading wicket-taker in last season's first-class competition and Roelof van der Merwe fancied himself for a recall. Now players like Aaron Phangiso who routinely concedes under four an over in Twenty20s could be turned to while South Africa decides how to balance pace and spin.

As for Tahir, all may not be lost. While his performance in Adelaide will be remembered with the same sniggers as Peterson's 28 in one over from Brian Lara's bat, he will probably not be thrown out just yet. He will, however, be told to make noticeable improvements if he hopes to stay there for much longer. Nathan Lyon had this advice for him: "Everyone has a nightmare, but the way you come out of it is important."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on November 26, 2012, 6:54 GMT

    If he were 23 instead of 33, he might be worth persevering with. However, at this stage in his career, he either can do it or he can't, and with 26 wickets in 11 tests @50 apiece, it's fairly apparent that he can't. He seems like a nice guy with a good attitude, but a spin bowler who can't land it on the spot is never going to cut it in test cricket. SA needs to look in another direction.

  • disco on November 26, 2012, 6:27 GMT

    If SA are to win the Perth Test they will need to include Tahir, if they are honest and really do trust him then he deserves his chance at redemption. I predict that should he play, they will win, if he does not play they will lose. Perth will be a game where everything that has gone before will play a part. Tahir will be a tempting target and he can use that to his advantage. Cricket favours the brave.

  • Sunil on November 26, 2012, 2:36 GMT

    Legspin is a tough art. Give the guy a chance, hopefully something will come of it. You need big spinning leg spinners to make it exciting, but get the feeling Smith's not the captain for him.

  • John on November 26, 2012, 0:54 GMT

    Both teams are trying to hit the opposition spinner out of the attack. At the Gabba Amla and Kallis certainly went after Lyon but I think Clarke made some good decisions around temporarily taking him out of the attack but bringing him back later. I think it is definitely harder for the batsmen to keep switching gears if a spinner is bowled in short spells until they ride out the storm. Definitely feel for Tahir, lots of spinners have bad days early in their career. Unfortunately, I fear they will discard him now. I'm of the opinion that most leg spinners will bowl the occasional bad ball (Warne was a freak) but can still have success. For example, Macgill used to bowl about one bad ball an over but was still very successful. I reckon the selectors should look more at the trend rather than isolated incidents ie everyone has bad days. Also Clarke, Warner and Hussey really went after him so you've got to cut him some slack there.

  • Sanjay on November 26, 2012, 0:10 GMT

    His bad luck is that he hasn't played a Test in the subcontinent as of yet. He routinely takes wickets at domestic level....yes, I know there is a step up but he's better than these figures suggest. Needs to sit down with his mentor, and work out where he's going wrong. Prolly trying to take a wicket with EVERY delivery is the 1st problem he needs to work on.

  • Mark on November 25, 2012, 23:16 GMT

    A few people have mentioned how Clarke and Hussey feasted on him, and while that is true, it was really Warner who took to him immediately and never let him settle in to his first spell. Who knows, maybe if Warner had been more conservative when he first came on, he may have settled and grown in confidence and actually bowled well. All 3 of the Aussie batsmen feasted on him, but it was Warner that set the tone.

  • Dummy4 on November 25, 2012, 22:58 GMT

    When all is said and done, Tahir is a Test player. Very few can make that boast.

  • Samuel on November 25, 2012, 21:02 GMT

    The problem with Tahir bouncing back is outlined in the article - he couldn't even bounce back with a decent over here or there in this Test, he just slumped further and further. He has been unlucky to run up against a couple of batsmen in astonishing form, but how he reacted to it all just raises doubts about his temperament for me. What's especially odd about it is that he's an excellent limited overs bowler, so you'd think he'd be used to batsmen attempting to lift him out of Adelaide and down to Antarctica. I'd be surprised if we saw him at Perth, but to discard him completely with tours to the subcontinent coming up wouldn't be a wise idea.

  • Ross on November 25, 2012, 19:49 GMT

    What bothers me is that leg-spinners are meant to be thinking bowlers who relish an attacking batsman - there is always a chance when they are playing shots. But you have to out-think them, especially when you are having a bad day. Try stuff. And that's what Tahir wasn't doing. It's like he was waiting for some magic to come from the pitch or the air or somewhere, anywhere, but from him. He has the skills, but it's his temperament that seems to be lacking at the highest level. He wouldn't be the first.

  • Nicholas on November 25, 2012, 18:22 GMT

    Meanwhile, on the same pitch, young Lyon has 4 for 106! Doesn't look like too many demons in/on the pitch to me. Very unlucky for Tahir - this is just one of things with leg-spinners sometimes. I hope he gets more chances. Philander back for next test then...?

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