Batsmen beware of two-faced Imran Tahir

Solomon Mire of Zimbabwe is bowled Imran Tahir of South Africa during the 3rd Momentum ODI match at Eurolux Boland Park on October 06, 2018 in Paarl.
Solomon Mire of Zimbabwe is bowled Imran Tahir of South Africa during the 3rd Momentum ODI match at Eurolux Boland Park on October 06, 2018 in Paarl.
Image: Ashley Vlotman

Imran Tahir is the only South African besides Kagiso Rabada in the top 10 ODI bowling rankings. He is also two-faced.

One of those faces‚ Tahir’s default‚ welcomes you with openness and friendly eyes.

The other flares like a flame the instant he flicks the switch and steps onto the field‚ and reaches full intensity when he marks out his run-up.

It is a face of fierceness and focus armed with laser eyes that could set something on fire. Happily‚ it hasn’t. So far.

But that look has no doubt helped Tahir to dismiss 206 batsmen in 124 white-ball internationals. That’s more wickets than any other South Africa spinner‚ in either of those formats.

Against Zimbabwe in Paarl on Saturday‚ Tahir switched faces earlier than usual: for the first time in his 88 ODIs he opened the bowling‚ sharing the new ball with Dale Steyn.

In his first spell of four overs‚ the googly bowler — to cast someone who sends down exponentially more wrong ’uns than leg breaks a leg spinner is unnecessarily misleading — he went for 11 runs‚ bowled a maiden‚ and sent Solomon Mire packing with his off-stump askew.

Steyn justifiably hogged the attention with his haul of 3/29‚ as fiery a performance as South Africans could have hoped to see from the player who has defined what it means to be a high quality fast bowler in the modern age of batsmen über alles.

But the cold fact is that in his first spell‚ also of four overs‚ Steyn went for eight more runs than Tahir.

And how much about Steyn having Craig Ervine caught behind with a sniping‚ cross-seam‚ bouncing away swinger in his fourth over had to do with Tahir’s wicket maiden the over before?

The answer is unknowable‚ but part of it could be had from a glance at the figures returned by South Africa’s other spinner on Saturday‚ Tabraiz Shamsi‚ who had every bit as much of an off day as his return of 10-0-72-0 suggests.

Tahir took 2/44 — 13 of them in an over thanks to Brendan Taylor’s meaty sweep — to put more distance between himself and all the other bowlers in the series.

Ten wickets at an average of 9.10 and an economy rate of 4.33 removes all doubt‚ not that any existed‚ that he will be South Africa’s first-choice slow bowler at next year’s World Cup.

“Even on a really good wicket‚ I was very happy with the way Imran opened the innings — it adds a dimension to our attack‚” Faf du Plessis told reporters in Paarl.

“We want Imran to always get wickets‚ because the best way to stop a team is to take wickets.”

If you could have the presence and experience of Tahir and Steyn — combined age 74 years and 300 days — firing from both ends‚ why the hell wouldn’t you?

“Dale’s put a peg in the ground to say he’s still very much good enough to play one-day cricket for South Africa‚” Du Plessis said.

“Dale is still bowling quick but his skill factor is right up there.”

Better yet‚ the timing of his return from injury is perfect‚ what with the World Cup now less than eight months away.

“The holes are slowly but surely starting to fill up‚” Du Plessis said.

“We need three wicket-taking fast bowlers‚ and we’ve got that in Dale and Lungi [Ngidi] and ‘KG’ [Kagiso Rabada]‚ and they’re very different.”

And then there’s Tahir.