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Imran Tahir appeared in front of me as an Alice-band wearing back-of-the-hand magician. Prancing around county cricket making batsmen look like complete idiots. The first spell I saw him bowl live was utter garbage. Half trackers were followed by full tosses and Samit Patel used him as little more than dental floss.
Then Patel went out, and Tahir went from a legpsinner who was there for punishment, to one there for retribution. He cut through the Nottinghamshire line up like a sword through butter. The only thing Nottinghamshire could have done to stop the carnage was to declare. Wrong'uns, sliders and legspinners came out of his hands like they were designed for nothing else. It was the ultimate in leg spinning porn.
Tahir even had the great backstory. You could almost imagine him walking around the globe, hustling people in cricket nets with his bag of tricks and telling stories about all the clubs he's played with.
His global wandering got him a wife, a new passport and eventually a Test cap.
Paul Harris first appeared in front of me as a left-arm spinner with little spin, flight or guile, and a front arm that refused to work at all. He had a mullet, or half a mullet. It seemed that Harris got most of his wickets from the fact that batsmen were embarrassed to get out to him or occasionally because they just seemed to despise him. He was a spinner by personality only. Harris was a fighter, the sort of person who you don't want to come up against in a reality show contest. But he was essentially weaponless. When he got wickets he had a certain angry happy face that was disconcerting.
Harris' international career came about when Nicky Boje retired, Claude Henderson was not interested and everyone had forgotten Paul Adams. Harris was just the right guy in the right place who didn't use his right arm at the right time.
Harris' career was a testament to hard work and South Africa's careful nature.
Tahir was an old school spinner. He couldn't field, at all. His batting was a combination of not knowing how to bat and not caring how to bat . Harris also couldn't bat, but he forced himself too. Knowing that he was rarely going to be a match winner with the ball, he fashioned himself into an arrogant version of Ashley Giles, and willed long innings with few runs without seemingly having the talent to do so. Both can also thank their careers to the all around skills of Mr Kallis, who allows South Africa to keep a spinner in the side even if their numbers don't always warrant it.
Harris is old South Africa. Reliable, hard working, defensive and the safe option.
Tahir is the new South Africa. Different, enigmatic, attacking and a risky option.
In the non-cricket world, Harris would be the manager of a medium-sized organization who started in the mailroom, Tahir an enigmatic entrepreneur. Harris would only attack when everything was in his favour, Tahir will only defend when he is told he has too.
The South Africa of only a few years ago were far more defensively minded. They drew key series after key series. They've had many chances to grab the No. 1 title in dramatic circumstances, but they've never done it. It's hard to believe this team has spent so little time at the top with the talent they have at their disposal.
The Gary Kirsten South Africa has been far better. The declarations of Graeme Smith at The Oval and Headingley were not like him at all. They won only one of their six series before Kirsten took over, they've one three of four since he has, and earned the number one ranking. Kirsten has taken a team with immense skill, and turned it into a team that wins. It's not the first time for him.
In Tahir, Kirsten has an enigmatic wrist spinner playing for a country that hasn't really embraced legspin in over a hundred years. Tahir's first Test was Kirsten's first as coach. That was perhaps largely coincidence, as Tahir had only missed a few Tests under the previous regime, and had played for them in the World Cup.
Importantly, since taking over as the main spinner Tahir's record is not outstanding. His bowling average is three more than Harris'. He struggles against frontline batsmen. South Africa are working on him being a more stable and consistent bowler than he was before. One that can attack and defend. Which is what the new South Africa, the Gary Kirsten South Africa, do.
A big reason South Africa are No. 1 is a seemingly small event from Lord's when Graeme Swann was run out. England were recklessly chasing the target, but doing it so fast South Africa had to be nervous.
Morkel, Kallis and Tahir were trying to get through the old ball as quick as possible, as Matt Prior and Swann swung hard. Then there was a miscommunication as Prior pushed for one single too many, Swann was short of his ground, but the throw was terrible. Tahir had to reach out to his right and then fling the ball back at the stumps. He did it well, so well that Swann was on his way, and England hit the new ball stumbling rather than running and it was all over.
The Alice-band wearing back-of-the-hand magician I saw in 2008 would not have had the ability to pull off a run out like that. He would have fumbled the ball, overthrown the stumps or never got himself into the correct position in the first place. It was working with South Africa that changed him. They turned him from a wandering oddity into the fifth bowler they needed, and a man capable of pulling his weight in the field.
Tahir is an attacking player who is learning how to defend. South Africa is a defensive team learning how to attack.
Tahir is still learning about Test cricket. His age might suggest experience, but he's essentially been employing card tricks to domestic batsmen, and now he's trying to rob banks. I think he has the skill, passion and energy to make a career as an international legspinner. But he'll need a lot of guidance to turn the odd wicket taking ball, into a career.
And Tahir and South Africa are lucky to have Gary Kirsten. The world's best cricket coach, and the now two-time coach of the No.1 ranked cricket team.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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