SA look to Tahir for spin impact
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