Pakistan v South Africa 2013-14 October 18, 2013

South Africa need spin solutions

After being tripped up in the first Test against Pakistan, maybe it is time for South Africa to allow Imran Tahir the chance to partner with Robin Peterson

Not more than an hour after South Africa crashed to their first Test defeat away from home in three years, the team was back at the drawing board, working on ways to avoid another. While some of the squad were licking their wounds, Imran Tahir was bowling on the practice pitch.

Hashim Amla, who faced 26.1 overs of spin in the match from Saeed Ajmal and Zulfiqur Babar, was standing where the umpire would be. Adi Birrel, the South African assistant coach, was keeping while Russell Domingo was at square leg. They were all watching very carefully, perhaps looking for a sign that Tahir was generating enough turn to play in the second Test.

But they did not need to be out there to know that. A mere glance at the scorecard should be enough. South Africa's spin department needs propping up after Robin Peterson - who, along with Pakistan keeper Adnan Akmal, was fined 50% of his match fee after the game for a bit of pushing that occurred when Akmal tried to pick up a bail while Peterson was batting - and JP Duminy conceded at 3.89 runs to the over, more than any of their seamers and more than the overall Pakistan run-rate, and only took two wickets, both of them belonging to Duminy.

Peterson, whose 28.5 overs cost 125 runs, was particularly problematic as he struggled to find a consistent line and bowled too many full tosses. Neither posed much of a threat to batsmen who were confident against spin, both in terms of footwork and and in their use of the sweep shot. What South Africa need is someone who can do more - be it hold up an end to allow the seamers to attack or make incisions themselves - and that makes Tahir's inclusion a no-brainer.

His former franchise coach at Titans, Richard Pybus, called his ability to take wickets an asset which makes him a "match-winner", but warned that he needs to be managed carefully if picked. For a start, Pybus is concerned that Tahir has not played regularly in the lead-up to the series. His last first-class match was in February and he did not play any county cricket - a rarity for Tahir - this year. He has played a handful of limited-overs matches, for South Africa in Twenty20s in Sri Lanka and for Lions at the Champions League T20.

"Guys like Imran need to bowl and bowl," Pybus told ESPNcricinfo. "He needs to bowl all year round. He can't get by on a minimum of bowling. He needs to be tougher on himself with regards to how much he must bowl competitively to be ready."

And when he does bowl, he needs to be given clear instructions not to get carried away. "He needs solid game plans and he needs to bowl to the team plan, knowing his role and exactly what is needed at each stage of the game. It's not just about waiting to clean up the tail, he needs to control the game for the skipper when he is needed to. He can do it, but he needs to adhere to it. Martin van Jaarsveld and Pierre Joubert [both former captains] at Titans were very firm with him and it helped him to keep his game plan and focus."

Tahir showed signs of the recklessness that can come from not being under orders when he bowled in the practice match in Sharjah. His first spell was an assortment of unnecessary variation, dotted with half-volleys and bereft of a plan. He returned for a more disciplined second spell, bowling a consistent length and frequently using the googly as well. Although he did not get any wickets, he did beat the bat on several occasions. Should he be able to replicate that, he could provide South Africa with a viable spin option for the second Test.

The coaching staff's actions suggest Tahir will play but Graeme Smith hinted at minimal change, although he admitted there was a concern in the spin department. "If I said no, it would be lie," Smith said, but then moved quickly to quell thoughts of South Africa making drastic adjustments to an XI that has only lost once in the last 16 Tests.

"People have bad games and we need to work on the people and the personnel and give them the best opportunity to do well. My focus as a leader is to work with those guys that have taken a bit of a knock in confidence. Tactically we need to decide what's the best option. It's a must-win game. We need to look at how we set up bowlers to take 20 wickets."

Pybus, although he would like to see the "frontliner get it right" mentioned something else which could be a solution Smith will be interested in hearing. "At Titans, Imran used to get 10 wicket hauls to win the game for us," Pybus said. "He and Paul Harris together were a sight to behold. They loved bowling together and were good for each other."

Harris was South Africa's holding spinner for four years before Tahir was picked, and when the team reverted to a containing man, Peterson filled the role. It seemed to be the thinking was that if Harris worked well in conjunction with Tahir, there may be reason to think Peterson could do the same.

It would allow Peterson to go back to the job of keeping an end tight - which he has proved he can do - and leave the attacking to Tahir. "Robbie needs to master his control," Pybus said. "There are no margins in Test cricket, six inches either side of a length is a lot of space for good players of spin. He has a great temperament and is aggressive. He just needs his control sorted out."

The only decision South Africa would then have to make is who to leave out. Pakistan play two specialist spinners alongside only two quicks but its unlikely South Africa will want to leave any of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander or Morne Morkel out. The obvious would be shorten the batting line-up slightly by benching Faf du Plessis, who has struggled in recent Tests.

Should South Africa take that route, it would be the first time since they became World No. 1 that they are deviating from the Kirsten-inspired seven-batsmen strategy and it may be a way for them to move on. Already, the impact of "guru Gary's" absence has been cited as a factor for the defeat.

Both India and South Africa have lost matches in the immediate aftermath of Kirsten's departure but this result should not be read as a blight on Russell Domingo, neither should be seen as a parallel to England's fortunes here in early 2012. This was simply a case of being outplayed, perhaps through some under-preparation and even under-estimation of the opposition.

What South Africa may be interested to know is that England also went into the first Test in the UAE with one spinner: Graeme Swann, and three seamers. They dropped Chris Tremlett in favour of Monty Panesar for the next two Tests. Despite losing them both, Panesar ended up as the leading wicket-taker for England with 14 scalps at 21.57 and two five-fors. If signs are anything to go by, that's one South Africa will look to.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on October 21, 2013, 18:43 GMT

    Water under the bridge, but if Smith's catch of the Pak captain was held another 80 runs would have been saved. The same with Kallis standing too far back in the beginning of Paki innings. Under cooked surely, but Faf du Plessis is not up to scratch. Last year when he conned the umpire in one of the home tests against NZ not to give him when he clearly snicked the ball and then laughed about it (he got a 100 as a result), I knew then that the cricketing gods would take revenge. So they have. I predict Mr Du Plessis will again score nothing. Leave him and Morne Morkel out. The latter simply does not learn his lesson and will keep on bowling too short outside off or on the pads with little success. He has also not improved his batting at all and must now be the worst no 11 in test cricket! On a par with the New Zealanders Martin and Danny M. I agree that De Lange must come into the side against India.

  • keval on October 21, 2013, 12:46 GMT

    Looking at the pitches, spin is prominent factor. We see new ball is only helpful for first 15 to 20 overs to do the damange. SA is able or not able to play spin is different concept. However SA need to take wickets during the middle overs and it can only be done by good spinners around in team. SA has won much of the matches cos of good batting and class batsman in their side. Good spin bowling is much needed to win to pitches like this or in asian countries.

  • greig on October 21, 2013, 10:28 GMT

    Spin is not the problem here, its batting. We havent played any cricket in over 6 months. Why does SA play so little Test cricket? Its obvious the SA team were hopelessly undercooked.

  • Dru on October 21, 2013, 9:46 GMT

    You cant score 250 in tests and expect to win many games and neither do I think it was to do with SA lack of spin! SA are a pace based attack with 3 of the top 5 bowlers in the world - why on earth would you suddenly try to win games with spin you don't have? If the SA batters got 400 in either innings this would have been a different game and I reckon SA need to concentrate on playing spinners as opposed to trying to spin Pakistan out with two mediocre spinners. Tahir is never going to be a holding spinner and no leg spinner has ever been a holding spinner, so don't play Tahir if you want a holding role, leg spin is not that easy to master and Tahir doesn't have the control to hold. He can take wickets so his role has to be in that area. I reckon SA are underdone from months of no cricket and Pakistan were brilliant and the result showed that but if SA plan to spin out Pak and forget about getting runs against spinners, they will have a problem again.

  • Yasir on October 20, 2013, 13:53 GMT

    @vigneshmurali :You might wanna think again on 'sometimes' This gives an impression of a fluke or Pak loses to low ranked teams all the time which is not the case.When all the teams were getting crushed by England in home & away..We simply outclassed them (3-0)..Same case with SA..World's best team outclassed in just 4 days.& it was no fluke..All credit goes to the bowlers who managed to get 20 wickets on a such track..

  • Lokesh on October 20, 2013, 12:09 GMT

    @Rooman Hamza, in football conditions don't really effect the proceedings unlike in cricket, so please don't compare the two.

  • Anupam on October 20, 2013, 7:40 GMT

    Don't create havoc or press panic button for spinners. Peterson is enough. don't forget that SA strength is African deadly Barrage (Steyn, Phil, Morkel, De Lange, Tsotsobe, Abott) which is capable to destroy any fortress anywhere. Spinner havoc sounds like retirement of Warne, Mcgill and Aus's prime moto is to search a spinner and they start dart process, import in meanwhile their batting, bowling, leadership, WK all lost because they concentrated totally on spinners. I'll prefer De Lange instead of tired Morkel. Morkel continuously busy on club & international cricket he needs rest to regain & refresh. De Lange is a power pack nature gifted Pace & bounce which will help in alien condition. With Steyn, De Lange SA will regroup and beat a minnow.

  • Dummy4 on October 20, 2013, 5:14 GMT

    Pak have a superb edge, does not matter with or without Imran. Pak has an excellent bowling attack and oh my lord cant wait for the dubai track where Ajmal and Babar will throw some beauties. SA needs to restrict Pak under 250 in first innings, if they can do that, they have a better chance of winning because more or less likely Pak will suffer in 3rd or 4th innings which they will play.

  • Vignesh on October 20, 2013, 2:56 GMT

    PAK loses to last rank test nation last month and this month beat the best test playing nation..don take it too hard on yourselves SA these pakis they can outplay the best sometimes,however lookin by past records they gonna get crushed n the next match

  • SRIVATSAN on October 20, 2013, 1:44 GMT

    Don't think Tahir will make a difference to South African prospects. It has to come from their strength which is pace. Pakistan will comfortably tackle Tahir, just the way he was handled by Aussies and other teams earlier. He seems to be a good bowler, but something is amiss and batsmen read him well.

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