November 28, 2010

A new country for Imran Tahir

He came to South Africa for the love of a woman, stayed to play cricket, and now awaits his chance to play for his new homeland

The last news Imran Tahir's mother had of her son was that he had been selected for South Africa. That was in January this year, when the Pakistani-born legspinner was included in the national Test side to play England. She died before word reached Lahore that he was ineligible to play for South Africa and never took to the field.

"I think that was the best present I could give her," said Tahir. "She was quite proud of what I achieved. I wish she could have seen me play more, but that's life."

Tahir didn't see much of his mother as he grew up. He has lived a nomadic lifestyle since he was 19 years old, playing cricket everywhere from his native Pakistan to the English county championship to sunny South Africa.

The last of those places stole his heart. He first travelled to the rainbow nation in January 1998, as a member of the Pakistan Under-19 World Cup team. On that trip he met Sumayya Dildar, a young woman in Durban, and fell in love. Tahir had to return to his homeland, but his heart stayed behind. Herschelle Gibbs may have us believe that old-fashioned romance is a foreign concept to cricketers, but Tahir's cross-continental relationship lasted eight years and shows unrivalled commitment.

"I had to go back to Pakistan because I was a centrally contracted player and I was captain of my state team, Lahore, but we kept in touch over the years. I called her so many times in that time that there is no phone number I know better."

In 2006, Tahir returned to South Africa, under the influence of his friend Gulam Bodi, to marry Sumayya.

"Gulam is like my brother. He told me to come for trials at the Titans franchise. I met Richard Pybus there and I found out that he had coached Pakistan. They offered me a contract so I moved to South Africa. But the main reason I came back was to marry Sumayya."

The first few months were difficult for Tahir. Along with wedding preparations he had to adjust to a new city, where public transport was almost non-existent. He relied on Bodi for wheels and more. "I travelled with him, he took me for practices, and we lived together. After I got married, I moved out and lived in one of the Titans flats, across the road from SuperSport Park."

His performances on the field showed no signs of strain; quite the contrary. In the 2007-08 season he was the most successful bowler in the first-class competition, with 31 wickets in six first-class matches at an average of 23.80. He finished sixth in the overall bowling rankings. The next season he took 32 wickets in eight matches and ended third on the table.

Tahir said the success was simply due to being happy in his surroundings. "It's a beautiful country and I've had a good experience. I have learnt a lot about my bowling here. I think I am a much better bowler than when I came to South Africa. I've just been loving it, I'm enjoying my cricket, and I've been honest with the game."

"Warne gave me good tips, in a way you wouldn't expect from him. He drove back to London from Hampshire, which is an hour and a half away, and caught his flight home. That was the nicest thing that ever happened to me"

He only started to entertain thoughts of playing international cricket during the 2009 county season. He took 52 wickets in 12 matches for Hampshire, including four five-wicket hauls, and was the second highest wicket-taker. "I thought I would play for South Africa, because I had a great county season. It is one of the toughest leagues around and I was doing well." Many people were tracking Tahir's progress, including one Shane Warne.

"Warne was in London and he was going back to Australia, but he came to chat with me in the nets," Tahir said. "He gave me good tips, in a way you wouldn't expect from him. The same day, he drove back to London from Hampshire, which is an hour and a half away, and caught his flight home. That was the nicest thing that ever happened to me." Dmitri Mascarenhas, who knew Warne from the Rajasthan Royals, organised the session, and it led Tahir to think of Warne as one of the best people he had ever met.

When he returned to South Africa, Tahir found things at the Titans had changed and he was no longer their blue-eyed boy. "I wasn't getting picked for the Titans anymore. I was so disappointed because I wanted to play franchise cricket and they wanted me to play amateur cricket, which was not fair because I was getting wickets." Tahir took 60 wickets in 10 matches for Easterns, but still the Titans shut him out. "I decided just to kill the season and concentrate on getting back in the next year."

Another superb county season followed, this time with Warwickshire, the highlight of which was taking five wickets in the final of the CB40 final. Then, with a fresh mindset, he moved to his wife's hometown of Durban to start a new season with the Dolphins, under the management of Graham Ford.

"I know Fordie from Kent. He has been unbelievable," Tahir said. "He knows the game and he knows what players want. As a coach, it not about your ability, it's about how you handle players. Ability will always be there. You will be around good players and you can improve on it. Its strong management that makes players feel comfortable."

Tahir has taken 30 wickets in four first-class games this season and 10 in seven-limited overs games. His best return was a match tally of 12 scalps against his former team, the Titans, sweet revenge indeed. "It's the nature of a human that when you get neglected somewhere you want to go back and prove a point. I was very passionate about it before the game. I didn't sleep and thought if I get the ball, I can show them. I kept things very simple in the game and I got wickets."

It's that passion that Tahir promises to bring to the international game as well, if he is given the opportunity to play at that level. "I can't see myself playing anywhere else in the world. You don't know how much I want to play international cricket for South Africa." He has been told that he will become eligible in December but is not sure if his papers will be sorted out in time for the series against India. One thing is certain: South Africa are on the hunt for an attacking spinner and Tahir's record can't be ignored. Once the administration is taken care of, he has a very real chance of finally being able to live the gift he never gave to his mother.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vilander on November 30, 2010, 18:39 GMT

    @ Pak fans, how good was this guy against Pak batsmen, was he of Danish kaneria class or less ?, cause even a par sub-continent spinner would be ok - good against the SA batsmen.

  • kriskingle on November 30, 2010, 16:22 GMT

    Brilliant article. One of the finest I ever read on this website.

  • Proteas123 on November 30, 2010, 7:41 GMT

    @ diri - You are spot on. SA are the most feared team around. He will add a new dimention to the team though.

  • dummy4fb on November 30, 2010, 7:40 GMT

    Imran Tahir, well done in both Cricket and Love. You have made your life by getting married to Sumayya. May you get a chance to play for SA. Lovely wife and competitive cricket that's what you got by Love of a woman. Bravo...

  • Ahmer on November 30, 2010, 7:24 GMT

    A good Bollywood director can surely make the movie out of this story

  • dummy4fb on November 30, 2010, 6:38 GMT

    This guyy deserves a break into the SA team... a story straight out of Hollywood box... It has romance, passion for the game, hints of racisim, ever desire to succeed and a sweet revenge...

  • dummy4fb on November 30, 2010, 6:05 GMT

    This dude is still young for a leg spinner. He's about a year younger than Harris so his age shouldnt' even be a question. Get him in there as soon as possible!!!

  • Jodhvir on November 30, 2010, 1:01 GMT

    as an indian supporter this i very heart-warming story and he hopefully gets to fulifil is amibtion of playing international cricket soon if not against india then maybe in the worldcup in feburary south africa could do with a quality spin bowler to test the likes of the world best batsmen at this current point of time

  • dummy4fb on November 29, 2010, 14:51 GMT

    Give him a chance - South Africa could benefit from a good leg-break bowler. He definitely deserves it. I would love to see him in the team! :)

  • SUNDOS on November 29, 2010, 12:09 GMT

    Oh what wouldnt SOuth Africa do for a decent spinner..They must thank Cupid and the assorted Gods of love that a prolonged courtship has ended in a leg spinner in contention to play for the would be best team in the world!!The mind boggles, a pacy bouncy track,Steyn and Morkel all brimstone and fire,and then instead of the restrictive Harris and the predictable Botha,a leggie who could actually Spin the Proteas to victory. It also says so much of the New South Africa.,embracing the brown and not so white of the world and providing a stage for them to display sheer talent.

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