Tahir gets Pybus' backing for Test spot
Much like the cat who has caught a bird too big for it, South Africa seem to be uncertain about exactly what to do with the legspinner in their side. Imran Tahir became eligible to play for the country in January and has been referred to as a messiah by local media ever since, but his impact so far has failed to match the talk around him.
Tahir has only represented the country on six occasions, five of them in ODIs away from home. His Test debut, at Newlands, was overshadowed by circumstances beyond his control: he bowled six fairly forgettable overs on a surface completely unsuited to his type of bowling. That match didn't help in properly assessing Tahir as a Test player but it did raise questions about the type of surfaces he will be presented to bowl on at home, and about his role in a South African team.
With seam bowling having dominated South Africa's attack for years, spinners, like Paul Harris, have been used to contain. Pitches have not been prepared with turn in mind. Tahir, it seems, will have to make the most of unfavourable conditions if he hopes to succeed, but Richard Pybus, his former coach at the Titans, said it might not be that complicated to get the best out of him.
"Pitches in South Africa are conducive to spin," Pybus, who currently coaches the Cobras, said. "The bounce in the track is key and most of the pitches wear quite nicely. In domestic cricket, the fourth day of a match was when Imran played a big part."
The Titans won a SuperSport Series title with Tahir and Paul Harris at the core of the attack. Having worked with subcontinent greats like Mushtaq Ahmed, Pybus knows both spin and South Africa. Tahir credits Pybus with teaching him the subtleties of how to use spin in South Africa and Pybus said he may need to revisit those first lessons if he hopes to perform well.
"He executed those skills well in the domestic one-day cup last year, for example. When I watched him then, I saw that he was getting good shape, he bowled with good pace in the air and got good side spin. When I saw that, I really felt that he will be able to bowl in all conditions."
Newlands is South Africa's most spin-friendly surface but November Test matches are not usually played in Cape Town and the pitch proved to be a seamer's paradise. The Wanderers does not usually have much in it for spinners but Graeme Smith said South Africa will likely go into the second Test against Australia with a spinner because "that's the way we have played our cricket over the last while."
That spinner, Pybus said, should be Tahir. "The bounce at the Wanderers will get him into the game and if he gets everything right - pace and that kind of thing - he has beautiful shape."
Even those who are convinced about Tahir's abilities may question how he fits into the current South Africa team. Having an attacking spinner affects the balance of the side in many ways. It creates the additional need for a containing seamer. Batting and fielding are still areas that Tahir is working on, so having him in the line-up shortens the batting order as well. Perhaps those were the reasons he was left out of the ODI series at home, but Pybus said there is a way to fit Tahir into the team.
"The important thing is that he complements his bowling partner whether it is a seamer or another spinner. Imran became very good at operating in different roles for the Titans, whether it was an attacking one or holding up one end. That attack revolved around the guys he is playing with now. He is used to playing with Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel."
Pybus said Steyn, Morkel and Tahir were not just wicket-takers but can use their "good control" to make sure they also keep the runs down. If that happens, there may not be an express need for a donkey bowler. Pybus said Tahir already knows he is not in the side simply to attack and that he had developed the right attitude to play in the country. "Imran has learned that you have to be patient in South African conditions and in other places, like Australia and England."
Like many others, Pybus is convinced that Tahir's time will come. But what does he do till then? "It is important for him to settle and trust the success he has had here before," Pybus said.
If and when Tahir does achieve success, Pybus expects praise to be heaped on him, largely because of Tahir's background and story. Tahir first visited South Africa with Pakistan's Under-19 side in 1998. He met Sumayya Dildar, pursued her for years and then moved to South Africa to marry her. That love story turned him into one of the country's favourite cricketers before he had even played a match.
It is that story that Pybus says will make him a part of South Africa's folklore if he does well. "His story is inspiring for all cricketers. It's a story of tenacity and holding on to your dream. He has a deep belief in his own ability and that's a wonderful thing."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent