Pakistan v SA, 2nd Test, Dubai, 1st day October 23, 2013

Tahir turns a corner

Imran Tahir's five-wicket haul, although a single performance in helpful conditions, is still reassurance that he is not a player South Africa want to push to the rear end of the queue just yet

Pakistan thought they had seen the back of Imran Tahir in 2006, when he made the decision to permanently leave the country of his birth. Seven years later, they were faced with him again and provided him with the smooth road he had been searching for after an international career which stuttered and stalled at the start.

Tahir played 11 Tests before he was dropped from the side, following the Adelaide Test in November 2012. In those games, he appeared out of place operating in the shadows of seamers at their peak and on surfaces which offered him nothing. But in Dubai, he had conditions to assist, an obliging batting line-up, much improved control and a more effective googly - exactly what he needed to put in the one establishing performance every player needs to build an international career.

The first sign that Tahir would not be a bit-part player, as he has been in the past, came when he was handed the ball. The South African way is not to bowl the spinner until at least the first over before lunch, but usually to only introduce him before tea. Graeme Smith rewrote the theory of allowing the spinner to usher the interval in when he gave Tahir the ball before the first drinks break.

It was over No. 12. Dale Steyn had made the first incision, Vernon Philander had held his end and Morne Morkel had steamed in at first change. Tahir was obviously nervous. He went short, then he went full, then he went too full. Luckily for him, Shan Masood missed out on the full toss and the bowler ended his first over with three runs.

Tahir's most significant weakness in the past has been his penchant to get carried away and, in an emotional wave, bowl every variation he possesses. In his time out of the international game, his franchise coach Geoff Toyana, has coaxed that habit out of him and helped him develop aspects of control.

The most impressive aspect of Tahir's stellar domestic summer, which included 37 first-class wickets, was his economy rate of 3.24. Keeping a lid on things is not a legspinner's first priority, much less Tahir's, but in the context of the country where he is playing, he has learnt it is necessary. South Africa traditionally use spinners to do holding jobs and, while they learn to manage the more attacking kind, he has had to learn to balance his natural instincts with fulfilling a dual role.

In his second over, there were glimpses of that balance. Six deliveries, all a similar length, all bringing the batsmen forward and none asking to be smacked to the boundary. With the benefit of good fielding, his third over resulted in the same. So did his fourth.

By the fifth, Tahir's impatience started to show. There was a full toss and one too far down the leg side. It looked as though breaking point was not too far away. Smith called him aside for a small chat; Tahir was back on target in the next over and then he was gifted a stroke of good fortune that turned things around.

Masood inside-edged as he looked for singles and the ball bobbled onto his stumps. Tahir's muted celebrations suggested he knew he couldn't take too much credit for the dismissal but it filled him with confidence for the rest of his spell.

The self-assurance swelled as he started to toss the ball up a little more. Confidence has always been a factor in Tahir's bowling. Toyana said he needed to be "loved" when he returned from his embarrassment in Australia.

He also needed a place where he would be guaranteed a grind. "I had to work out how I needed to play in the international arena. I trained really hard," Tahir said. "I still think I am the same bowler that I was but work really hard. It's nice to see that pay off."

Through long hours in the domestic game, Tahir found the form required for an international comeback. When he bowled his googly, the time he had spent honing it was obvious. He decided not to accept another county deal last year, ahead of South Africa's quest for No.1 ranking on the tour to England, and he went to consult with mentor Abdul Qadir instead. They did specific work on variations and perhaps that is starting to take effect.

The changes Tahir has made to his wrong 'un are not substantial enough to stand out - there may be a little more flicking than there was before - but it remains deceptive. Misbah played across the line, was beaten and struck on the front pad to become Tahir's big scalp. The googly also accounted for Mohammad Irfan, who did not pick it up at all.

In between, Tahir picked up wickets with quicker deliveries that skidded on to end with his best match figures. Adnan Akmal was one of those, perhaps the one that would have given Tahir the most pleasure because his relations to the Akmal family go back to his childhood.

If Tahir felt that way, he didn't admit it and claimed he was not meting out any comeuppance to people who used to be his friends and countrymen. "It's not that I wanted to show something, it's just the great opportunity I had to represent South Africa, to play for the No.1 team in the world and to do well," Tahir said.

Pakistan has seen the back of Tahir, in the patriotic sense. "I am more South African than Pakistani now," he declared. Those words, when written, are absent of tone and so could easily be read in a brash voice but that is not how Tahir said them. His words were expressed as a courteous parting of ways with the place he used to call home and a respectful nod to the land he has since given that title to. "It's a great country and I have met so many nice people," he added.

Many of those people have been waiting, since Tahir made his debut in late 2011, for him to fulfill his promise as South Africa's spin saviour. A single strong showing in helpful conditions is not confirmation that he has done that. But it is reassurance that they were not wrong about Tahir in the beginning and that he is not a player South Africa want to push to the rear end of the queue just yet.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent