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'Nothing can break me'

Imran Tahir talks about overcoming adversity, finding love, and the worst bowling performance in Test history

Arya Yuyutsu
There's something about Imran Tahir. He's a cricketer you can't but like, but not someone you buy posters of to stick on your wall.
He isn't a muscular hunk. His beard isn't sexy. His celebration is liberatingly endearing but not one that kids imitate on school grounds. He takes wickets, he talks shyly, almost sheepishly, and rarely engages in verbal battles with batsmen. He holds the record for the worst bowling figures in a Test match. You can't but like him and that spark in his eyes.
At the end of this interview, I thanked him as he undid his collar mic and asked if he wanted me to leave out some parts of what he had said. "I'm okay with whatever you put up," he replied. "I just spoke from my heart. And now the rest is up to you."
Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood in Pakistan? Did you dream of representing Pakistan?
Yes, definitely, that was my childhood dream. At one stage I didn't think I would go so far, as I was the eldest in the family - I had to start working, and I found a job which taught me a lot about life. I was packing people's things. I was in a retail store in Lahore. One day, I went for a cricket trial with a friend and that is where things changed for me. I would like to mention Mr Shahid, who was a selector at that time who encouraged me and picked me. He gave me an opportunity and I took 11 wickets in the first game and I realised that I could achieve my dream.
Adelaide 2012: your figures of 37 overs, none for 260 against Australia were the worst match figures in the history of Test cricket. How did you cope with that?
For me, nothing can break me. I've never said that in an interview before. I came through a lot of hard hurdles and I crossed them, and I don't think anything can be tougher than that. It was just a game for me and I tried my best. It was the worst game of my life, though. The good thing was that we didn't lose the match. We played good cricket as a team and Faf du Plessis played the innings of his life. I got dropped for the next game and I understood that I did not deserve another opportunity. I worked hard and waited for another opportunity. When I made my comeback, I proved that I could play Test cricket.
Tell us about the role Abdul Qadir has played in your cricketing career.
Abdul Qadir is a genius, a legend, and the best according to me. I always wanted to be like him on the field. I am close to his family and I asked him for tips to improve my bowling and about his experiences. He gave me advice which I will never forget. The advice from him really helped me. Obviously, I cannot be like him because he was naturally gifted and I had to work hard on my skills. I am a different bowler and if I try to emulate him, I might end up being an average bowler. I believe you should stick to whatever suits you best rather than being someone else and end up being nothing.
"I don't believe in playing for the sake of it. I believe in playing for the people I represent and doing justice to the hard work I've put in"
I would also like to mention Shane Warne, who helped me when I was playing for Hampshire. Dimitri Mascarenhas was the captain then and he is good friends with Warne. So, I requested him to arrange a meeting with Warne and I got to spend an hour with him. It was a great thing for me to learn from this legend of the game.
I am really grateful to both of them for helping me, more mentally than in terms of bowling variations and techniques. Their advice really helped me a lot on the field.
Did you long to play in the IPL when you were not a part of it?
I always wondered why I couldn't be a part of the IPL. At that point of time, I wasn't playing international cricket, so I had to bide my time. I always felt I had the ability to do well in the IPL. Since it is believed that Indian players are the best players of spin, I did not make it initially, which I can understand, but from my point of view, I always felt I was good enough to be a part of the IPL. My overall one-day and T20 records are up there with the very best. So I felt sad when guys who had an inferior record to me got to play in the IPL while I was not a part of it.
I decided to look at it positively and thought that my opportunity will come - maybe when I am 40-41! But I always had the belief to do well in the IPL. I think that if you want something desperately, you will get it. I think this is probably the best T20 league in the world as you get the kind of environment you will not find anywhere else.
I try to give 100% every single time I step on the field. Then I can sleep well at night knowing that I gave my best. I don't believe in playing for the sake of it. I believe in playing for the people I represent and doing justice to the hard work I've put in - if not in bowling, then through my fielding or batting. I try to ensure that the paying public get their money's worth.
Tell us about the game between India and Pakistan in Durban when you met a special person in your life.
It was actually after the game. I saw a girl standing and tried to catch her attention but she ignored me. We then met at the airport after a week, when I was returning to Pakistan. I spoke to her dad and got their address and contact number, after which I started writing letters to her. It took me ten years to win her heart.
I didn't see her in those 10 years. I then decided to make things happen and moved to South Africa. We wrote to each other but she was busy with her studies at that time. I was playing in England and I decided to go and see her. It was pretty difficult for me as I don't have family in South Africa.
I didn't know how to ask her parents. It took me a couple of weeks. I asked her mother first as I was scared of approaching her father. I am really grateful to my mother-in-law. She cooked for me every day and showed a lot of trust in me. I have a lot of respect for her. Without their support it would have been a different story as I am extremely shy.
We then decided to get married and we now have a child as well and feel blessed to have him. I feel we were destined to end up together.
What is the toughest phase you've gone through? And how did you come out of it?
There have been a few hard patches in my life. In those years, there was no one around to help. I lost my parents, which is the toughest thing to overcome. After my father passed away, I started taking cricket really seriously as he had told me the year before he passed away that he will pray a lot for me and he would like me to do well in cricket, and become like Imran Khan (laughs). I wish he could see me and where I am today.
That was the turning point in my life. I decided that if I was going to do the things my father told me to do, I had to toughen up. I always wanted to do that, but I guess I just needed a kick in my life and his passing away was that. I did well the next year and got a central contract, which made me happy.
When did you first start celebrating the way you do?
I think this has always been inside me. I once played a charity game where I took a brilliant catch. Even then I celebrated in my usual way. Normally guys don't mind getting hit in charity games, but I wanted to take a wicket there as well and not get hit. I am the kind of person who will give his best every single time. I cannot underperform unless I'm playing with kids. Actually, I'd probably still get angry if they try to hit me! The celebration just comes naturally. I don't sit in my room and decide how I'm going to celebrate. It is spontaneous and something that cannot be explained. It is just the love I have for the game. It's just the passion.
You're 36 now. What are your goals for the future?
One of my dreams was to win the World Cup. It was a pretty good team effort [in the 2015 World Cup] and we went pretty close. That is one thing I want to achieve.
Other than that, I want to be committed all the time I play cricket. I don't want to just keep playing for the sake of playing. The day I realise I'm not good enough, I'll go. I want to play as long as I can - not just to make up the numbers but to play with utmost passion.

Arya Yuyutsu is a multimedia journalist at ESPNcricinfo