The journey almost complete for Tahir and du Plessis
It's unusual to see two South African spinners in a team. It's particularly uncommon to see two South African legpinners in the same space. On Monday afternoon, that rarity became a reality as two members of the endangered species occupied the same press conference podium.
Both are debutants, but besides a burning desire to represent South Africa, Imran Tahir and Faf du Plessis have little in common. The former was born in Pakistan, first came to South Africa when he was 19 years old, fell in love with a woman from Durban and after returning to marry her, faced an uphill battle to become a citizen. The latter was born in Pretoria, had played for the national team at under-19 level, then abandoned South Africa in favour of a Kolpak deal but has since returned to the fold.
They make an unlikely pair, Tahir with his blonde highlights and rugged complexion and Du Plessis with his dark Mohawk and unblemished skin, Tahir answering some questions in his native Urdu, and du Plessis doing the same in Afrikaans. Soon, they will share the same ball, plot to get the same batsmen out and contribute to the same team. It's a team that has long been without an attacking spinner and may have a vacancy for a solid allrounder ahead of the World Cup, roles which Tahir and du Plessis could fit snugly into.
"It's every cricketer's dream to play in the World Cup," Tahir said. He has made no secret of his desire to go to the 2011 tournament in the subcontinent. He was named in the preliminary 30-man squad earlier on Monday, at the expense of Jonathan Vandiar and his prospects of participating in the showpiece event look strong. Tahir is not a South African by birth, but has strong ties to the country through his wife and says representing the Proteas is "the only dream I've had."
In order to secure his flight to India, he will have to translate his impressive domestic form into international success, something that will be challenging. Indian batsmen are some of the best players of spin and Tahir knows that. "It's always tough for a spinner to bowl against India," he said.
Apart from the quality of the opposition Tahir will be up against, he may also find adjusting into the South African gameplan difficult. Spinners have traditionally been used in defensive and containing roles in South African cricket rather than as wicket-takers, the exact opposite of how Tahir views his own role. "I have always been an attacking bowler. I am more than happy to go for a few runs and get a few wickets."
It may mean South Africa go into matches with a few more slower bowling options so Tahir can stick to his natural game, but he has indicated that he is willing to change if it means earning a spot in the side. "I will bowl defensively if I have to."
He doesn't say that as though it will be a compromise. Tahir is too mature for those games. He understands that in order to succeed in the set up, he has to fit into the current puzzle and not start building one of his own. If he was someone else, there might have been doubt about his ability to do that but Tahir's youthful hunger blended with his experience and self-belief remove the question marks.
He talks like a man who is ready, mentally and physically, for international cricket. His years of bowling, both in South Africa and in England, mean he understands his own game thoroughly and is ready to showcase it. "I've got nothing to lose. I've been bowling well, the whole season. I've bowled well in country cricket. I've got a lot of confidence," Tahir said.
He has had a successful season with the Dolphins franchise in Durban, both in first-class and limited-overs cricket, and could make his international debut on his home ground, Kingsmead. It usually boasts a seamer-friendly green top but the groundsman has been preparing wickets tailor-made for Tahir throughout the domestic season and he said he enjoys bowling on the Durban pitch. "There's been a bit of both bounce and turn here. The groundsman has been preparing some nice wickets for me and I've been bowling really well here."
The anticipation that surrounds Tahir debut must make du Plessis feel like little more than a shadow. The allrounder has had a memorable week himself, having earned a national call up and secured an IPL deal with the Chennai Super Kings. "I can honestly say it's been the highlight of my whole life so far," he said.
Du Plessis enthusiasm bursts out of him whenever he is asked a question. He is a typical, fresh young face, eager to break into the national team. He arrived at the press conference in a wet shirt, a badge of honour from his exertion at practice. "I am absolutely soaking - that's how my first practice went. Graeme's first words were to congratulate us and say well done and you're part of my family."
His new status as an IPL player hasn't quite sunk in yet. He has his priorities arranged in chronological order. "I've got a lot of excitement for now to be playing for South Africa. It's the highlight of my career to be doing that now. When the IPL comes that will be another highlight for me."
It's a good thing that du Plessis has his timelime sorted out because rumours are circulating that he is the likelier of the two to play on Wednesday, batting at number seven or eight and sharing some of the fifth bowler duties. Luckily, du Plessis and Tahir are not mutually exclusive characters and there is the enough room for both of them, not just in a press conference, but also on the field.