OPINION: South Africa’s humble quadragenarian on verge of history

Ahead of the World Cup, all the talk from the South African camp, and from those peering in, focussed on the vaunted Proteas seam attack. Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Dale Steyn; a triumvirate of bat breakers and wicket takers who would bounce and swing their side through the tournament, leaving devastation in their wake.

On Thursday, in the opening game against England, everyone’s eyes were firmly fixed to the right but Faf du Plessis went left and opened the bowling with his 40-year-old leg spinner.

That is known as a Kansas City Shuffle.

The first ball of every previous World Cup has been delivered by a right arm seamer. This was the third time Tahir had ever used a new ball in ODI cricket after Zimbabwe last October and Pakistan in January. History and expectations went out the window as du Plessis sprung a surprise before the tournament had taken its first steps.

Tahir’s first ball was a regulation leg break that was gently stroked into the covers for a single by Jason Roy. His next was a beauty. Sent from the back of the hand, his top-spinner straightened as it landed and found the edge of Jonny Bairstow’s bat. Quinton de Kock - who himself was kept out of the loop and only learnt of the plan when he was told to grab his helmet - took the catch and Tahir was off celebrating with the same gusto that he has every one of his 1,726 wickets as a professional cricketer.

His wild antics might rankle some. Even in an age of T20 franchise cricket, the sport still has its roots in Victorian England and the stuffy ideals of imperial Britain. He’s been accused of being solipsistic and vainglorious. As if taking a wicket didn’t command the spotlight, he sprints away from his teammates, arms spread out like wings, roaring to the heavens.

In person, Tahir is almost the polar opposite of his post-wicket demeanour. Softly spoken and measured, he exudes a natural humility that puts a smile on the face when he delivers an endearing line.

“I always dreamt but never thought I will be here playing my 100th game for South Africa,” he said. “It’s an absolute honour and privilege being given the opportunity. I’m really grateful to everybody.”

When Tahir first pulled on a Proteas shirt - as a 31-year-old against the West Indies in the 2011 World Cup, picking up 4/41 in a 7 wicket victory - he represented a new dawn for South African cricket. With the exception of Paul Adams, spinners from the Republic have often come in a familiar form: conservative finger spinners more adept at holding up an end than running through a team.

Tahir was something else. An aggressive wicket-taker, he bamboozled even the best batters with a ripping googly that comes out at a similar pace to his stock-ball leggy, making it harder to pick. But his strength soon became a weakness as his reliance on variety meant he failed to control an innings for the Test side.

But in shorter spells a white ball, he routinely picked up scalps and is unquestionably South Africa’s greatest ever ODI and T20 spinner. No matter what happens over the next few weeks his legacy is secure.

“Looking back I’m really proud of myself,” he said. “This means a lot to me and I can’t express it in words. I’m the guy who has come through a lot of hard places, seen a lot of hardships. I lost my parents before they saw me play International cricket. I have not seen my brothers or sisters in the last two years so this country that I am representing is so important to me and I’m really proud.”

Against Bangladesh South Africa have the chance to set things right. Instead of a barrage delivered by Jofra Archer, the batsmen will face at least 20 overs of spin. Rather than the aggression of Ben Stokes and Eoin Morgan, the bowlers will face a line-up uncomfortable with the ball whizzing past their throat. Like a prizefighter who was floored by a heavy hitter in a previous bout, South Africa will be looking for a morale-boosting knockout against a lesser foe. Expect plenty of short balls whizzing past Bangladeshi throats.

Tahir will still play a part. He is in the form of his life having recently returned from the IPL as the tournament’s top wicket-taker. His 2/61 against England helped restrict them to 311/8 which looked a gettable total before his teammates folded with the bat in hand, falling short by 104 runs.

Not that this quadragenarian is dwelling on the past. He’s come too far and seen too much. His career started in 1996 and has taken him to six different where he has celebrated wickets taken for 24 different teams. On the verge of a historic milestone, there is no doubt which of them he places above all the rest.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance reporter based in the UK.