Cape Town – Right now, Imran Tahir continues to spectacularly defy the ravages of time.
The Proteas’ long-serving mystery spinner turns 41 toward the end of the summer, but that seems absolutely no impediment to him still being a vital component of the team that will try to end their ICC major-tournament hoodoo in the T20 World Cup in Australia toward the end of 2020.
That is expected to be Tahir’s swansong at international level - although putting any full-stop on his illustrious white-ball career is a hazardous exercise, given his ongoing excellence and undimming enthusiasm.
Tahir currently leads the slow-bowling charge, in terms of statistical success, in the 2019 edition of the Mzansi Super League, with nine wickets at an average of 13.77 and economy rate of 5.63 for Nelson Mandela Bay Giants (two faster men, Dale Steyn and Junior Dala, both have 10 wickets).
Apart from being consistently dangerous and penetrative, he has been a bastion of run-choking consistency, not yet leaking more than 26 runs in a single spell – no small feat considering his span of six matches.
But if it is a reminder of what will be missed when he finally drifts into the sunset, there is a decent shaft of light in assessing the national team’s future, probably a year up the road, without the charismatic figure.
It comes in the shape of Tabraiz Shamsi, some 11 years Tahir’s junior and his equivalent “X-factor” spinner with the similarly high-riding Paarl Rocks.
They went head to head at St George’s Park on Wednesday, and both, unsurprisingly on present form, shone brightly: first Tahir returned figures of 4-0-19-2 (the wickets of heavy sluggers Cameron Delport and Mangaliso Mosehle) and then, in the Bolanders’ successful defence of 166, Shamsi earned 4-0-24-2, including the scalps of Heino Kuhn and Marco Marais.
Conclusion of the tussle saw Shamsi stay right on the heels of South Africa’s premier white-ball spinner on the MSL charts: he also boasts nine wickets (one game less), just at a slightly inferior average of 14.11, and still highly credible economy rate of 6.68.
It is a happy state of affairs – frankly, South African cricket needs as many of those as possible in these fractious, near-farcical administrative times – that Shamsi keeps providing assurances that strike ability, backed up by suitable levels of control, on the spin front should stay in decent hands for the Proteas when Tahir is gone.
While his turn-a-boot-into-a-cell-phone wicket celebration isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and might be seen to give the left-armer just a hint of juvenility, that belies his growing maturity in relation to what really matters most: his bowling itself.
Shamsi is no stranger to the national cause already, of course, with his 17 ODI and 16 Twenty20 international appearances – plus two Test caps, reasonably far apart - but he has generally had to live in the formidable shadow of Tahir.
Perhaps feeling unreasonably pressured to match up to Tahir’s high standards when given those opportunities, he has occasionally been guilty in the past of offering up too many obvious “boundary balls”, through long-hops, full tosses and the like, to the more ruthless of top-tier batsmen.
When he does get a bit of a hammering - a fate that affects all who specialise in his difficult trade in T20 at times - Shamsi can also be prone to spearing the ball in flatter and faster, taking away some of his considerable strike threat.
But there is a growing sense that the 29-year-old, Johannesburg-born player is increasingly eliminating such frailties, and keeping a cooler head in the face of adversity whenever it comes around.
He has only had one MSL match so far where he has taken relative tap … the game at Boland Park where Proteas Test stalwart Dean Elgar (Tshwane Spartans) led the visitors’ charge to victory with a T20 career-best 88 not out at a strike rate of almost 147; Shamsi went for 41 runs in his four overs.
More customarily, though, Shamsi has been combining agreeable levels of containment with his ever-present guile this season.
Although they have sometimes been fielded in tandem for South Africa, the time cannot be too far away when Shamsi more definitively becomes the replacement for Tahir in the Proteas’ green shirt.
His strides toward a more complete bowler are coming at a fitting juncture …
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