Tahir shows control and poise
It's easy to see when Imran Tahir has something on his mind. He falls into old habits like misfielding. A fumble at fine leg to give away a second run, where he should have kept it down to a single, was an example of it. Tahir had bowled just four overs and conceded ten runs, hardly a cause for concern but he was concerned.
After being brought on in the 13th over - the earliest he has been used so far - he bowled two tight overs, helping to keep up the pressure the seamers had created but not breaking through.
For Tahir, for any attacking spinner, that is the measure of success. He had been replaced after the lunch interval and brought back once Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor had found a rhythm. With Jacques Kallis doing the containing job on one end, Tahir was there to take a wicket and for two overs he didn't.
All the signs were that he was getting desperate. His hands ended up on his head too often, in exaggerated fashion, as though a disaster much more serious than that which could take place on a cricket field had just happened. As he found some turn, he snarled in a way that caused his face to reshape itself into an expression that reflected an almost toxic mixture of annoyance, disappointment and frustration.
At the end of his fourth over, McCullum flat-batted him over midwicket for four. Although he has previously insisted he enjoys being hit around a bit, because it gives him a greater chance of taking a wicket, it was clear that he did not enjoy that one. His irritation was evident as he kicked the ground below him. He was afraid he was not doing his job properly.
Tahir, like any bowler, wants to do well for his country. Perhaps he has a little bit more want than others because South Africa is his adopted country, after he moved there six years ago for the love of a woman. Perhaps it is also because his eligibility was hyped up as the best thing to happen to South African cricket since the 438-game in light of his massive success back home. In five Tests so far, he has failed to live up to it not by any doing of his own, but because of largely unhelpful surfaces and limited opportunity.
On Wednesday, at the University Oval, he had one of those. Eight wickets needed to be taken, time was on his side and he wanted to make maximum use of it. With all that weighing on his mind, it's little wonder his mind was not entirely on saving one but on how best to make sure Smith kept him on and he delivered.
From what we have seen and what we know of Tahir in the past, we thought he would have returned trying to bowl all 10 deliveries in his repertoire in the six balls he had in the next over. Each one would have drawn half an appeal, if not more, even it had been smacked straight back over his head for six. From what we know of the old style of South African cricket, he would have not have made an appearance until the over before tea. Both have changed.
Tahir returned with a much better over, concentrating on getting the legbreak right and finding more pace through the air, something he has worked on extensively in South Africa as a way to take wickets. He used the googly as well but not as often as he has been prone to and he said very little while he toiled. Smith kept him on, even when McCullum carved up the space between mid-on and mid-off with a lofted shot for four.
Eventually, it paid off with the wicket of McCullum, which gave him immeasurable confidence and relief - his usually emphatic celebration was a more subdued one this time - a glimpse into a more controlled version of Tahir. He paid greater attention to operating as part of a unit and building pressure with the rest of the pack, instead of focusing on a solo effort and in so doing turned in the best performance of his short career. "Every spell, he is learning more and more," Morne Morkel said. "A lot is sometimes expected of Imran but I think he will deliver on this tour."
Morkel expects Tahir to come into play even more in the second innings with the pitch set to deteriorate and get lower and slower. He also said Tahir's presence takes the heat off the rest of the seam bowlers, who no longer feel they are the only ones whose job it is to take wickets. "It's important for the seam bowlers not to try too hard," Morkel said. "We've got guys like Kallis who can pull the run rate back so Imran has got the freedom to go in an express himself and do the magic."
Edited by Siddarth Ravindran
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent