South Africa in Sri Lanka 2014 July 21, 2014

Can Tahir change his spots?

South Africa's premier spinner was selected as an attacking option, but in the Galle Test when conditions were in his favour, Imran Tahir was unable to be effective and might have to change his mindset going forward

What is it they say about leopards? They cannot change their spots, right? Wrong.

Four years ago, it was discovered, Rudyard Kipling was onto something when he wrote his tale of how the leopard got its spots. It was described as a gift from an Ethiopian, who said, "Now you can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular." The leopard was being prepped for camouflage, which implicitly implies change. It has taken the better part of a hundred years but scientists now agree coat-marking helps animals blend into their surroundings, and even changes over time to better adapt. Leopards that live in dense bush will have more intricate and complex spots than those that migrate to grasslands, where future generations adapt to fit the less-is-more theory.

Claude Henderson, South Africa's spin consultant, wants Imran Tahir to change his spots too.

Once heralded as an attacking addition to the Test pack, Tahir's lack of wickets in Galle has led to questions over his role. His lone strike in 45 overs would cause further raised eyebrows considering Galle welcomes his kind with open arms, especially in the latter stages of a Test.

Although the turn was described as being slower than normal, Sri Lanka's two spinners shared 11 victims between them. Tahir, who bowled on the fourth and fifth days, could not be a similar threat. Given that he is South Africa's premier spinner, he should offer more in the twilight stage of a Test, especially in one where conditions suit him.

Henderson wants to put paid to all that. "He must not fall into the trap that, because we are in Sri Lanka, wickets are dry and the spinners come into play, he feels he must take five wickets. It's about building the pressure. Wickets are a bonus," Henderson said after the Galle Test.

If you are searching the memory bank for where you have heard sentiment similar to that before, it is what South Africa used to say when they spoke about Robin Peterson, Paul Harris, Nicky Boje and Henderson himself.

"We always talk about spinners trying to be consistent in the areas that they bowl, that doesn't mean how many runs they go for but how many singles they go for in an over," Henderson said, about what is expected of Tahir now.

He [Tahir] must not fall into the trap that, because we are in Sri Lanka, wickets are dry and the spinners come into play, he feels he must take five wickets. It's about building the pressure. Wickets are a bonus
Claude Henderson, South Africa spin-bowling coach

He thought Tahir showed improvement on the fifth day, that "he was more consistent," and "that's what coaches want their bowlers to do." On day four Tahir bowled 11 overs for 41 runs and his variation was the googly-turned-long hop. On day five he bowled nine overs for 24 runs and he used the googly better. There was a difference, albeit not a threatening one, but Henderson didn't mind that.

"On day four there were too many inconsistent deliveries within overs, which didn't create enough pressure," Henderson said. "My message will always be to the spinners, yes we have to spin the ball but can we create pressure? Can we be consistent in our areas? Immi knows what works for him. He has got his way of thinking and practicing to get it right so I'm quite happy with the way he bowled on day five.

"We talk about partnerships in batting and we also talk about partnerships in bowling. If your spinner is going at sixes one end, Steyn will struggle and we saw that this morning. If you don't strike it's not a problem, but let's hit our areas consistently and I thought he hit them really well today."

That is Tahir's homework for Colombo, rather than improving his strike rate. "The challenge in the longer format for us is not to put that pressure on yourself," Henderson said. "In one-day cricket you've got four guys on the boundary, in Test cricket there is none but the secret is just to try and build pressure.

"It's to ask yourself: how many dot balls can I bowl as a legspinner? How many dot balls can I bowl when I bowl my googly? How many dot balls can I bowl when I change my angle on the crease? I think that's the recipe for us. I don't think Imran feels the pressure of, 'I have to take wickets'. It's just a way of thinking of what his role is and sometimes spinners fall in the trap and think they have to be the strike bowler, when what makes us consistent is stopping the game."

All that means is Tahir is no longer seen as a strike bowler because South Africa have realised their seamers can do that job just about anywhere. With Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel taking 16 wickets in Galle, there is little argument against that belief, but it also means Tahir will be asked to change his mindset.

Tahir is a naturally attacking bowler. He has described himself that way on many occasions and even said he does not mind being hit around a bit in order to take wickets. South Africa had been moving away from using their spinners in defensive roles, which suited Tahir, but everything Henderson said indicates they are on their way back there. Tahir has also been open to change, willing to try to develop other skills such as fielding, batting and holding up an end, and he has been successful in all three. Whether he can do any of them as a primary function is doubtful.

What that means for JP Duminy is that he may be asked to bowl more. What that means for Dane Piedt - the reserve spinner on tour, who topped the first-class wicket charts last summer but has an impressive economy rate - will only be known in the future.

But what it means for Tahir is that unless he changes his spots, he may find his Test career fading sooner than he would have liked.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Alex on July 23, 2014, 21:57 GMT

    He is unlucky dude. I do not see any technical weakness. May be he lacks strategy against particular batsman. I think varying length for different batsman is key. if someone move around , you keep him play straight. if someone stay back pitch it up and hit blind spot in length. I think he is not hitting blind spot of batsman. Also speed needs to vary such that batsman should not have time to predict where its landing

  • R on July 23, 2014, 11:55 GMT

    The problem with Tahir is that when he is good, he is okay but when he is bad, he is awful... He goes at 5+ runs an over quite regularly... It means, not only is he not taking wickets but also he is releasing the pressure created by other bowlers!!!

  • Dummy4 on July 23, 2014, 2:32 GMT

    Too many lefties in SL top 6 is the problem.. Also SL play spin as well as the Indians if not better while Pakistanis play leg spin as abominably as SA themselves.. Ironically they produced Quadir, Mushie and Tahir himself.. So Tahir's performance against them cannot be credited to him alone.. But being a leggie, he could give SA some cheap wickets at the end if Steyn and Morkel are exhausted.. Tahir could really benefit from going around to the lefties and bowling a lot of googlies and making his stock ball the odd variation.. He would turn the ball appreciably as there will be more action on it for a wrist spinner and that angle would be as difficult as an off spinner bowling the doosra creates similar angles with lesser action on the ball..

  • Dummy4 on July 23, 2014, 2:20 GMT

    Everybody knew the no third fielder behind square on the leg side rule.. Dhoni almost had Moeen Ali.. But ironically he dropped him standing up to the stumps.. I think the third fielder behind square on the leg side needs to change.. We are no longer in the 1930s when Jardine tried to injure Bradman out.. There are only two bouncers an over, no more beamers, we can't seem to control the thickness of the meat of the bat.. Christ.. Give some to the bowlers..

  • Delan on July 22, 2014, 23:21 GMT

    Imran Tahir is impatient. He expects wickets to come his way immediately. He doesn't need to try to many variations at once, just subtly introduce them to fox the batsmen. He is part of a very good attack. All he needs to do is bowl tightly and build pressure. The results will then come for both the team and himself.

  • greig on July 22, 2014, 21:57 GMT

    I have to agree with Aby_97. With such a good bowling line up, why tarnish it with a guy who bowls at an average of 45 in Tests and dishes up 2 buffet balls an over. TAhir is also nearing the end of his 4/5 day career, why not debut a youngster who was the TOP WICKET TAKER in our Domestic Comp.

  • Abhijith on July 22, 2014, 15:24 GMT

    With such a fierce bowling line up, I don't think a spinner who averages more than 40, one who doesn't add value with the bat should be selected for his defensive bowling.Robin Peterson is a better option and it is a bonus that he can also bat.He bowled well against India in the second test which South Africa ended up winning.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2014, 13:27 GMT

    Can't believe some of the comments here. We should stick with Tahir. Agree with Handalf The-Bez and Peter Dembitzer. Have you all forgotten his performance against Pakistan in Dubai? So he has one bad game, and must immediately be dropped?

    We cannot keep chopping and changing our frontline spinner every Test. We need to show some confidence in Tahir. After all, he is a confidence bowler.

  • Deon on July 22, 2014, 11:01 GMT

    I agree with most of the comments here. Another fact that should help to clinch the debate in Piedt's favour is age. Piedt is a young man. Tahir is at the end of his career.

  • Cliffontong on July 22, 2014, 10:46 GMT

    Tahir can't bat, can't field and bowls at least one 4 ball per over, averages over 40 per wicket in tests and has a very high strike rate - explain to me how he is still in the team and how putting an other spinner in the team can be worse?

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