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Imran Tahir and the changing face of South African cricket

South Africa's victory over Sri Lanka ended a hoodoo that has plagued them since their first World Cup in 1992. The Proteas have finally won a knockout game and the chief architect of that win, Imran Tahir.

Imran Tahir has spun South Africa to the semi-final

South Africa's victory over Sri Lanka ended a hoodoo that has plagued them since their first World Cup in 1992. The Proteas have finally won a knockout game and the chief architect of that win, Imran Tahir.

Yes, you heard that right, a spinner helped South Africa to their most important victory of the last decade.

From pace to spin

Although South Africa have long had a tradition of great cricketers, the tempo of their modern-day success – with both bat and ball – has been quick rather than slow. Yet they find themselves in the semi-finals of the World Cup without the injured seam demon Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn still not up to his fiery best. How has that been possible? Leg-breaks – and potentially world-class leg-breaks at that.

Since his ODI debut against West Indies in the 2011 World Cup, Tahir hasn’t looked back. Even in his first game, his figures of 4/41 were proof that here was a leg-spinner who was both economical and effective at picking up wickets.

Although the pace bowling attack that South Africa possess has been one of the best in the world for the past decade, the lack of a quality spinner meant that the pressure that had been built up initially was usually lost in the middle overs.

Over time, batsmen had realise that seeing off the strike bowlers would make their task a lot easier as there was no other wicket-taking threat. In conditions that weren’t conducive to pace and swing, the Proteas struggled as the batsmen kept picking their best bowlers off, like clockwork. But Tahir's presence now means that they have a spinner, who has added depth to the Proteas bowling unit and made it deadlier than it has ever been.

Sri Lankan batsmen schooled in the mysteries of spin on the dustbowls of Colombo and Kandy came up shockingly short against Tahir, the journeyman-cum-late bloomer now flowering as the Proteas’ premier ODI spinner.

South Africa’s go-to man

The man from Lahore, who moved to South Africa in 2006, was captain AB de Villiers’ go-to man to break the partnership of Lahiru Thirimanne and Kumar Sangakkara which threatened to help Sri Lanka set an imposing target in the last-eight clash in Sydney.

His figures of 26/4 earned him the Man of the Match against the Lankans and left him trailing only Mitchell Starc as the tournament’s leading wicket-taker. His ODI strike rate of 29.7 over the last 12 months is even better than that of supposed untouchable teammate Steyn.

Not only has he taken more wickets than any other bowler in the past year, but has quickly carved a niche for himself and cemented his spot in a bowling lineup that is often taken up by fiery, fast bowlers and not wily leg-spinners.

But perhaps most impressive of all, considering his is usually a seriously expensive craft, Tahir’s economy rate of 4.38 is one of the best in the business, even if it is only from 38 ODIs.

Tahir’s form crucial to South Africa’s chances

History exists to be rewritten and Tahir is seemingly intent on doing just that. For a very long time, a spinner was as much a part of South Africa’s bowling plans as a pick axe was in a battle. Misunderstood and often held in low regard, the spinner has never quite been able to lay down a marker.

Not during their rise to the pinnacle of cricket – and probably not since the late, great Hugh Tayfield, arguably one of the greatest off-spinners of all time – have the Proteas had a slow bowler who remotely resembled a strike bowler; a man capable of conquering as well as containment.

From being just another one of South Africa’s endangered species, spin bowlers are back.

At 35, it is unlikely that Tahir will be around until the next World Cup, but if South Africa do go onto win the World Cup, it will be thanks to, in no small part to a leg-spinner from Lahore.

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