ANALYSIS: Tahir and Rabada the kingpins in formidable Proteas attack
The Proteas bowling unit has always been a traditional strength for the national team and in the class of 2019, nothing has changed, they remain the driving force behind the team's success.
The batting line-up will always have question marks over their ability to chase totals or get runs when it matters because of South Africa's troubled history with knockout cricket. Whether this is fair criticism or not, it is a debate for another day.
South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada celebrates a wicket. Picture: @OfficialCSA/Twitter
Tahir and Rabada occupy fourth and fifth in the ICC ODI rankings, respectively, as it stands. This is indicative of their standing in the global game and their importance to the Proteas.
At the time of writing, Rabada is at the summit of IPL wicket-takers list for 2019 with 18 wickets in 8 matches. Still only 23, he has swiftly become South Africa's premier fast bowler. He possesses the ability to take wickets as an opening bowler, in the middle overs and at the death with his rapid yorkers all the while maintaining an economy rate of 4.98 runs per over.
Imran Tahir celebrates the Proteas' victory over Sri Lanka in their Twenty20 International match at Newlands on 19 March 2019. Picture: @OfficialCSA/Twitter
'KG' handles pressure with poise and never seems flustered, although he can sometimes celebrate a bit too much. We can forgive him as a fast bowler. It shows he cares and this is something you want in your premier quick who bowls rapidly.
Rabada is the go-to man in 'big moments' for whatever team he represents. In this season's IPL, he defended 10 runs in a Super Over, won his long-standing battle with David Warner, and he got the wickets of the explosive Andre Russell and iconic Virat Kohli in pressure situations.
He seems able to overcome any batsman or challenge at any given time. His ability to remain composed remains important for a team whose 'BMT' is sometimes harshly questioned.
Every nation in world cricket has batsmen capable of clearing the ropes or at least hit boundaries, and this where Rabada seems to thrive. He has faith in his ability to bowl yorkers at will. While others have exercised more complicated death bowling tactics, his simplistic approach at death remains a timeless one.
It was clear Rabada was destined to become a leader on the world stage after his ODI debut against Bangladesh in 2015 in which he picked up his best figures of 6/16 on debut and also took a hat-trick, all at the age of 19.
What makes him a captain's dream is his ability to bowl at any point in the match. He has the capacity to move the ball through the air and off the deck, possesses subtle variations with his slower balls and has a bouncer that can stun batsmen.
If Rabada is not taking wickets, he is bowling economically. This will be his first World Cup and perhaps with no baggage from previous tournaments, he could be the man to haul South Africa into uncharted World Cup territory.
If Rabada doesn't pitch up, the Proteas are fortunate to have one of the best, if not the best spinner in world white ball cricket. Only Afghanistan's Rashid Khan is above him the ICC Rankings as it stands.
Wrist spinners have become an indispensable weapon for any limited overs team that wants to be successful. Tahir has the skill to pick up vital wickets during the middle overs which in previous years was an opportunity for batsmen to rotate the strike. Tahir gives batsmen no respite in these vital overs. There are international batsmen who still struggle to pick his leg spinner, googly or slider.
The energetic and passionate leggie has thrived even when his team has faltered. His record at big tournaments symbolises a man willing to fight any battle for his team.
It's no surprise that Tahir is South Africa's leading spinner in terms of wickets at the World Cup. Only the legendary duo of Allan Donald (38 wickets in 25 matches) and Shaun Pollock (31 wickets in 31 matches) have more wickets at cricket's showpiece.
Tahir is on 29 wickets (at the World Cup), his strike-rate is far superior to the aforementioned duo because he has done it in only 13 matches. His economy rate is also lower than Donald's, despite scoring rates accelerating rapidly over the years in world cricket.
Tahir is also the second spinner to take 5 wickets in an innings for South Africa and the only one to do so in the World Cup. His value to South African white ball cricket is underpinned by the numerous milestones he holds which includes being the fastest Proteas bowler to take 100 ODI wickets (58 matches).
In the 2015 Cricket World Cup quarterfinal between South Africa and Sri Lanka, Tahir helped South Africa to their first ever World Cup knockout win with a Man of the Match performance of 4-26.
FILE: Imran Tahir celebrates his wicket of West Indies batsman Andre Russell (not pictured) during the 2015 Cricket World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and the West Indies at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 27 February 2015. AFP
If he does well with the ball, it eases the pressure on the batsmen and success for the team usually follows. The World Cup will also be the perfect send-off for the 40-year-old as he calls it a day in ODI cricket after the tournament. He will also bring up a century of caps during the tournament so it's set up for him to create one last memory for an adoring nation.
The Proteas are lucky to have an excellent support cast. The emergence of Lungi Ngidi as a fine ODI bowler has been a big boost at the right time with the retirement of Morne Morkel. The tall and imposing quick gets wickets up front with his unassuming pace and movement off the deck. He is also tough to put away during the middle overs and back end when batsmen are trying to accelerate. In his 18 ODI's he has already picked 34 wickets, he gets those wickets at an average of every 24 balls.
Another international newcomer is Anrich Nortje. He will be the Proteas' secret weapon. Nortje has only played against Sri Lanka, but his genuine pace could be an important weapon for South Africa who are loaded with seasoned internationals. Although injury thwarted his first IPL experience, Nortje had tongues wagging during the inaugural MSL. A sample size of only a handful of matches in the T20 tournament was enough for Kolkata Knight Riders to snap him up.
Meanwhile, Andile Phehlukwayo has developed into a quality international cricketer and, like Rabada, seems eager and willing to bowl at the death and make a difference. Phehlukwayo is South Africa's most skillful bowler. He doesn't have the pace but he has the guile, variation, and self-assurance to handle big moments which he has been doing with more frequency of late. It will also be his first World Cup so he'll be eager to set in motion a new era in knockout cricket for this generation.
All these bowlers make up a formidable bowling attack, and South Africa still has the fiery Dale Steyn in their ranks. Although he has made his name as a Test bowler, Steyn remains one of the hardest working and best fast bowlers in the world. He will go down as South Africa's best ever when he retires and will be desperate to make history in what is probably his last World Cup.
Lastly, Tabraiz Shamsi remains a great back up option for Tahir, the left arm wrist spinner has bamboozled and terrorised domestic batsmen for a few seasons now. He has bags of potential and is the natural heir to Tahir's throne.
Carl Lewis is a reporter for EWN Sport based in Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter : @Carl_LewisZA