South Africa in Sri Lanka 2014 June 29, 2014

SA look to Tahir for spin impact

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South Africa are a side powered by pace which makes a tour to the subcontinent a stern examination of their more subtle skills. The quick men have to exhibit patience and demonstrate variation, the batsman have to get their dancing shoes on and the spinners... for years the question was, what spinners?

This time there's an answer and it comes in three forms. South Africa have a trio of spinners in each of their ODI and Test squads on the current tour of Sri Lanka and a central role for one of them. Imran Tahir has been identified by AB de Villiers and Russell Domingo as the go-to guy for both the ODI and Test series.

"In the past he has done really well for us, in the 2011 World Cup in similar kind of conditions," de Villiers said. "He is definitely a big part of our team. He is an attacking bowler and we're really excited to see him perform well in Sri Lanka."

Of Tahir's 13 ODIs, nine have been played in sub-continent conditions, which is where he has been most profitable. His 23 wickets - including the 14 during the 2011 World Cup - in these matches have come at an average of 14.21. Despite good numbers, Tahir didn't play an ODI for two-and-a-half years after the team's World Cup exit. He was only recalled last October after he reminded national selectors of his prowess in shorter formats on the tour of Sri Lanka.

Last August, Tahir was part of the T20 squad that beat Sri Lanka in their own backyard in a three-match series. He took a wicket in each game and showed excellent control with an economy rate of 5.25. That earned Tahir ODI recall against Pakistan in the UAE, where he was the joint second-highest wicket-taker with nine wickets at an average under 20.

In the return series in South Africa, Tahir was less successful. He took just three wickets at an average of 39.66 and was used only once in the home series against India. It suggests South Africa want to keep Tahir for subcontinent conditions, which might lessen his chances of earning a World Cup place. However, they would also depend on how he does later in the year, on visits to New Zealand and Australia.

Still, Tahir would do his chances no harm with impressive returns in Sri Lanka because South Africa regard this tour as step one in their journey to the World Cup. "We've still got 26 one-dayers to go before the World Cup, so it's quite a lot of cricket to be played," Domingo said. "When you get to the World Cup, you want to be confident, you want to be the top side, you want to be one of the teams to beat. Leading into the tournament, we want to get our positioning in the rankings a little bit higher and that process starts now."

Where Tahir is more certain of his place is in the Test side. After yo-yoing with Peterson for the sole spinner's spot over the last 18 months or so, Tahir edged ahead with his first five-for in Dubai and a decent showing against India in Johannesburg. He has been all-but-guaranteed the job of senior spinner in Sri Lanka, where South Africa acknowledge they will have to tinker with their team composition.

"Two spinners will be the way I suppose. One of the frontline spinners with JP will be our best call," Domingo said. "We are fortunate that we are always going to play one frontline spinner and then JP as a part-timer but I see him as a frontline spinner. So we do seem to have both bases covered. The conditions will determine the squad but it is highly unlikely we would go with three spinners. I don't think that is going to happen."

Dane Piedt is the other spinner in the squad, but the rookie only has outside chance of starting despite a strong domestic season which saw him top the wicket-taking charts. Since Domingo has ruled out playing both Tahir and Piedt - the specialist spinners - because he believes Duminy can do the job of a second spinner, it's far likelier Tahir will be in the starting XI and Piedt will find his role confirmed to the nets, the drinks duties and his own education.

Sri Lanka is the last place South Africa lost a Test series away from home, eight years ago in 2006. It is also the place they need to win if they hope to regain the No.1 Test ranking from Australia, who are a fraction of a point ahead.

The last time South Africa toured Sri Lanka, Nicky Boje was their only spinner. He took five wickets in the two Tests, both of which South Africa lost. Since then South Africa have relied on Paul Harris and Peterson to back up the seamers. But now conditions mean they need a spinner who can hold his own instead of an end and circumstances demand a wicket-taking spinner. Tahir fits that bill and South Africa are hoping he will be the answer to their spin question.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • brokeneffingarm on July 1, 2014, 13:49 GMT

    Imran has plenty of experience & being a leg spinner would help him a lot in sub-continential conditions.I believe that he is a much better bowler than his stats suggest since he has been bowling on surfaces that do not help spinners in any way. In conditions like these the only thing he has to do is to draw the batsman forward. The ball will do the rest of the work by itself.

  • SICHO on July 1, 2014, 11:17 GMT

    When it spins, Immy is up there with the best (if not better). In his last Test match in the sub-continent he outbowled the Pakistani trio of spinners, yes Pakistani spinners (Ajmal, Hafeez and Barba). So SL shouldn't fall in the trap of making dry pitches, unless they want Steyn and co. to run riot with reverse swing (remember PE?)

  • Nuwas on July 1, 2014, 11:00 GMT

    I'm glad according to the majority ( at least Indians) SL are underdogs even in our own backyard, not because of anything but due the mere fact that most of the teams fell in that trap underestimating our capabilities during the past two years or so. Nevertheless I'm looking forward to a cracking series

  • LALITHKURUWITA on July 1, 2014, 10:57 GMT

    This series will be a very difficult one for SL. SA is much better team than Poms even in away in SL. SL is only ahead in Spin department. My money is on SA to win both OI and Tests.

  • creebo777 on July 1, 2014, 10:07 GMT

    Why didnt proteas pick dane piedt for the odis to see how he goes...so stiaan van zyl might play in the first test with amla moving to 4,hope steyn can get some reverse swing,big vern needs to take early wickets with new ball,

  • espncricinfomobile on July 1, 2014, 8:59 GMT

    Tahir has come on leaps and bounds as showed during the recent T20 World Cup , although producing it consistently during a test is a different ask. But I think he will do well as especially bowling around one of the best pace attacks. Great series for a neutral too.

  • ksquared on July 1, 2014, 8:37 GMT

    Since Murali retired SL has played six test series at home, they have won 2(Bangladesh, Pakistan) drew 3 (WI, ENG, NZ) and lost 1(AUS). Both NZ and ENG were two match series while WI was rain hit.

  • CKfrombrisbane on July 1, 2014, 8:28 GMT

    SA will be hammered by giant SL . SA can not perform in subcontinent.

  • Unbiased-views on July 1, 2014, 8:17 GMT

    @ electric_loco_WAP4 SL have failed miserably @ home ever since Muruli retired!!! Sl couldn't win test series in SL for for nearly 2-3yrs...Even teams like Pak, Nz have been able to drew the series.....How many test series SL has won(exlc Ban) since Muruli left the scene??

  • TJP1000 on July 1, 2014, 7:38 GMT

    Everyone's underestimating the SA bowling attack. Steyn is the best fast bowler in the world, regardless of the pitch or venue. Morkel showed glimpses of his ability in the PE test against Australia on a track similar to the sub-continent. Philander will chip away, but I agree that he might be the weaker link. Tahir has proved himself in sub-continent conditions and he will compete with the best of the spinners in these conditions. Then Duminy can hold up an end and break partnerships. I am more concerned about the batting line-up without Kallis gone. De Kock is a good prospect, but will struggle in SL. He should also keep if he is playing, not because he is a better keeper than AB, but De Kock's batting is better if he wears the gloves.

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