India vs South Africa: Why Imran Tahir may not open bowling today

India vs South Africa: Why Imran Tahir may not open bowling today

Imran Tahir has dismissed Virat Kohli twice in international cricket – at the 2015 World Cup, and the second innings of the Nagpur Test later that year.

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South Africa’s Imran Tahir. (Reuters/File)

Imran Tahir may be a potent threat to batsmen all over the world, but it’s against India that he gets his comeuppance, most strikingly against Virat Kohli, whom he has dismissed just twice across international formats. Tahir’s economy rate against India is a respectable 5.33 but he has picked up only 10 wickets at 51 in 12 games. That’s why we may not see him opening the bowling on Wednesday.

It’s a record he wants to desperately alter, and there wouldn’t be a grander occasion than the one on Wednesday. The leg-spinner is aware of his ineffectiveness against the India skipper and it troubled him enough to seek the advice of fellow leggie Shreyas Gopal, who has made a habit of taking out Kohli in the Indian Premier League in the last couple of seasons.

So when the two met during the back end of this year’s tournament, according to Gopal, Tahir had a specific question: “Tell me about those Virat Kohli wickets.” On the first instance this year, Kohli misread Gopal’s googly, which he’s intermittently prone to against leg-spinners. In their next encounter, Kohli threw his arms at a slightly flighted delivery, again a googly, and couldn’t get the required elevation.

Recalling the conversation for The Indian Express, Gopal said he tried to wriggle out of the topic with a juicy platitude: “Make him attack you, come at you, you’ll have a chance.” But Tahir wanted something peculiar. He was looking to probe whether Gopal had detected a weakness. Three times in a row can’t be mere happenstance.


Tahir has employed his full bag of tricks against Kohli, often to no avail. Among other variations from his repertoire, he had tried inviting him to attack before slipping in that deathly slider. But such two-card bluffs seldom worked against as shrewd a batsman as Kohli, who’s more circumstance-driven than mood-influenced. The only two occasions when Tahir managed to scalp Kohli were first at the 2015 World Cup and then in the second innings of the Nagpur Test the same year. On both instances, Kohli perished attempting big booming shots.

So what does Gopal do that Tahir doesn’t or vice versa? First, Gopal is a much quicker bowler, the wrong’un that consumed Kohli was bowled at around 94kmh, brisk for even leg-breaks. And wrong’uns, characteristically, are slower than leg-breaks. Though quicker, he tosses (and not flights) the ball quite high, cajoling the batsman into believing that the ball would break away as googlies tend to be flatter. As importantly, he seldom veers away from the off-stump, sometimes even middle-and-off line. In that sense, he is quite unique, faster than most leg-spinners but less flatter than the fastest of them.

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But he is markedly different — he is flatter but slower, loves to land the ball a little wider off off-stump, in the fourth-fifth stump line, gets a lot of topspin but not extravagant side-spin. The slowness means that even if Kohli can’t pick him off his wrist, which is not indecipherable by any stretch, he can do so off the surface. There is the variable of time. Other deliveries like the slider hardly torment him.

It’s the googly that occasionally troubles him. But Kohli has sort of scientifically defused Tahir’s googlies. On his last tour to South Africa, wherein he amassed 558 runs in six innings including three hundreds, two methods stood out. First, whenever he faced Tahir, he stayed a little lower than usual at the crease, so that he could sweep. It’s a stroke Kohli seldom unfurls, but when you have trouble picking the wrong’un, the sweep reduces the risk of misreading it. Though there lurks the danger of a top edge, it reduces the risk of an lbw or bowled. Besides, it takes the pitch out of the equation.

Rohit Sharma is another batsman who has successfully swept Tahir, though he has had his share of trouble with googlies. He seemed a walking wicket for leg-spinners before he began to trust his sweeps (and slog-sweeps).

The other stroke Kohli employed to blunt Tahir was the bottom-handed, ground-fleecing whip-drives. Here again, he meets the ball on the full, but doesn’t look to loft it, rather bludgeon it. It’s the power of his wrists that stands out, as it twirls when meeting the ball. While the bottom hand provides power, the top hand enables placement.

The stroke begins with a strident front-foot stride, before his arms reach out for the ball and power it anywhere between extra-cover and long-on depending on the line. When placing it through the off-side, his back-foot drags sideways, like when playing an inside-out shot through cover. It comes across when flaying it through long-on. His googlies demystified, Tahir withered, eking out just a wicket for 175 runs before he was dropped in the ODI series last year.