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

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