South Africa need spin solutions
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