Why Tahir should stay in mix

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Imran Tahir (AFP)
Imran Tahir (AFP)

Cape Town – Fortified by their charges at last warming properly to a first Test, South Africa’s brains trust should feel pretty confident that precisely the same personnel can be deployed for the decisive second against Sri Lanka from Thursday.

The Proteas weren’t flawless in Galle, yet they were still good enough to trounce the home side by a wide margin of 153 runs and hopefully that will lean coach Russell Domingo and company toward putting out an unaltered XI at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo.

If there is one area open to possible review after some problems in the first encounter, it is the primary spin berth where Imran Tahir produced a mixed bag a few days ago.

The word “mixed” is used deliberately ... because by my book he wasn’t all bad, despite the leg-spinner’s figures not looking too flash.

It would also seem too much like a knee-jerk response to South Africa’s long-time spin shortcomings to banish him after one Test in the middle of the domestic winter – remember he hadn’t had an extended first-class bowl for months ahead of the Galle Test and leggies, with their difficult art, arguably require more overs under the belt than most.

You have to suspect that his over-supply of “free hit” balls in the first Test will decrease in Colombo, simply through the natural process of increasingly fine-tuning his fare.

The Sri Lankans were always going to target Tahir in Galle; try to put him under pressure as quickly as possible to simultaneously up the onus on part-timer JP Duminy to keep a respectable lid on the scoring rate.

Not only was Tahir rather unlucky at times not to get among the wickets more, but he also showed, in each innings, a pleasing ability to pull back his economy rate as his workload wore on, after the danger had sporadically existed that he might suffer another “nought for 260” type of disaster, a la Adelaide Oval in 2012 when he travelled for an unfortunate average of about seven runs an over.

He didn’t go at even half that rate in Galle where his first-innings economy, in fact, ended up being a decent 2.88 in 26 overs.

People also have improperly short memories if they think Tahir is in a cycle of relative failure in Tests: it was only two games back for him that he was highly influential – via eight scalps – in South Africa’s levelling win against Pakistan in Dubai.

 

There will be support in some quarters for the Proteas instead blooding the Young Turk from the Cape Cobras, Dane Piedt, on Thursday.

Not only does that mean two off-spinners if he is paired with franchise colleague Duminy – robbing South Africa of variety – but you also have to ask the key question: is the critical final Test of an away series in Sri Lanka really the right place for his baptism?

After all, this Test is at a bowlers’ graveyard venue where Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene traditionally make gigantic scores virtually in their sleep.

No, the time to try out Piedt, with the exciting box of tricks he supposedly possesses, is more fittingly the next assignment, when the Proteas face limited neighbours Zimbabwe in a once-off Harare Test in mid-August.

If there is another player under increasing pressure to deliver more emphatically, it is opening batsman Alviro Petersen.

Not for the first time in his 31-Test career in Galle, he was a perplexing figure, playing some tremendous, booming strokes at times and looking every bit the experienced cricketer he is in his 34th year.

But he was twice dismissed in the thirties, when tidily set, and that was in keeping with his patchy broader record in the five-day arena, where he averages 36.90 -- a little disappointing for a man with key responsibility in a team bidding to be the world’s best again.

Ideally, he seems the perfect foil for his new and much less seasoned partner at the top of the order, Dean Elgar, but that doesn’t mean he is exempt from producing the goods with sufficient regularity himself.

Petersen last made a Test century 19 innings back – the 2013 New Year fixture against New Zealand at Newlands – so a return to stronger service would be timely on a pitch historically a batsman’s relative paradise at Colombo SSC.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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