If Hashim Amla & Co hadn’t quite surrendered as meekly as they did to India’s spinners, the third day’s play of the Mohali Test might well have gone down as a watershed moment in the history of South African spin. In a space of less than 20 overs, Simon Harmer and Imran Tahir had run through an Indian batting line-up, snaring seven wickets between them for 39 runs. But as the Proteas collapsed to a 108-run loss, it was Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin who were being hailed as heroes. Harmer, Tahir and their four-wicket hauls were mere sidelights, maybe garnering honourable mentions if even that.
South African cricket has always had a template of bowlers hunting in pairs. Be it Donald and de Villiers, Pollock and Ntini or the more contemporary Steyn and Morkel. You could even add Kallis and Klusener to that mix or go back in time and find Peter Pollock and Mike Procter gunning down opponents in tandem. Apart from Hugh Tayfield and his post-war era of trickery, the spinner has always been an exotic add-on to the South African hunting party. The thought of a pair of spinners leading the safari is almost alien to them.
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But with the pitches for the remainder of the Test series expected to neutralize the South African pace attack like in Mohali, and with the Indian batsmen proving to be fair chase against spin, it’s likely that the visitors’ game plan will be championed by a 26-year-old off-spinner raised in Pretoria at the start of his career and a 36-year-old leg-spinner from Lahore on borrowed time.
This is not to say that the aforementioned South African bowling pairs didn’t have their dissimilarities, but it’s unlikely any of them could have backgrounds as poles apart as Harmer and Tahir.
To the extent that the 10-year gap in their ages and the direction in which they turn the ball naturally are nothing more than incidental. So, too, the fact that one is distinctive with his blonde hair and blue eyes while the other is identifiable with his eye-catching beard.
Around the time in the mid-90s, when Harmer was passing his earliest grades at Pretoria Boys’ High School, one of the highest-ranked academic institutions in the whole of Africa; Tahir was packing boxes at Lahore’s Pace Mall before being picked for the Pakistan U-19 team in serendipitous fashion.
By the time Harmer had passed out, Tahir had already begun his voyage across the globe as cricket’s itinerant journeyman. He would have already clocked up thousands of air-miles, snared hundreds of wickets, not to forget donned jerseys of 25-odd teams in three separate continents long before Harmer even began making an impression in grade cricket.
The alumni-list of Boys’ High — as the school is referred to — includes two Nobel Prize laureates, 18 Rhodes scholars, 8 judges of the Supreme Court and a number of elite sportsmen — including former great all-rounder Eddie Barlow, ODI specialist Chris Morris and Oscar Pistorious — and it’s anthem goes, ‘Tis here we learn to live’. Tahir’s life lessons on the other hand were gathered on the road as he traversed across county and club grounds, living out of suitcases and bowling his heart out for every team he ever turned up for.
If Harmer is always seen bowling with his shades on, Tahir is better known as a spinner who wears his heart perennially on his sleeve. And it’s not just Tahir — known for his wild runs towards the distance — who’s known for his idiosyncratic wicket celebration routine. In franchise cricket back home, Harmer is known to celebrate the downfall of a victim by going down on his haunches and attempting to ride a virtual pony while bobbing his ample posterior off the ground. It’s unlikely we’ll get to see him indulge in his bizarre version of the ‘booty bounce’ dance form this tour, considering that he avoids it in Tests as in his own words it’s ‘disrespectful’ for the traditional format.
That’s not all though. The two are like chalk and cheese off the field too. Tahir, known to be the official smoothie-maker of the Protea camp, spends his off-season tending to his wife and kids when not making anonymous visits back home to Lahore, Harmer directs and produces documentaries — Behind the Warriors — showcasing the off-field activities of his franchise teammates. Harmer’s social media pages are a window into his non-cricketing life — pictures of him and his teammates tanning by the pool in Goa being the latest — Tahir uses it intermittently, only to maybe wish a colleague on his birthday or to spread the joy on festival occasions.
With ball in hand too they are complete opposites with Harmer providing the stabilizing bass notes to Tahir’s maverick and often erratic riffs. Like Tahir, who had to wait patiently to get his first international cap as Cricket South Africa pulled out all the stops to fast-forward his residency criteria, Harmer too has had to be patient, even if the wait might not have been as dramatic or as long. Last season, Harmer finished second behind fellow off-spinner Dane Piedt, who’s also part of the Test squad in India presently, for the Warriors in the wicket-takers’ tally. And he had to see Piedt getting the nod before him in the one-off Test in Zimbabwe.
Tahir once spoke about being so comfortable with bowling 8-10 variety balls that he didn’t even have to think much about them. “Ab toh aadat si hai,” is how he explained it.
Like Tahir, Piedt too has a bagful of tricks, including the doosra while Harmer’s inscrutability quotient is rather limited. His variations are more subtle than daring, judicious changes of pace and angles at the most.
But he makes up for it with his control, consistency and a pragmatic approach, which helps him stay rigid with his plan A and not being deterred by batsmen going after him — like when Marlon Samuels went after him on debut.
It was only a bunch of injuries — Piedt did his shoulder and Robin Peterson his finger — and Tahir’s expensive returns that led the way to Harmer getting the nod against the West Indies in the 2015 New Year’s Test at Newlands.
Tahir too had donned the Protea whites for the first time at Cape Town four years ago. That was an unremarkable debut with the leggie bowling 10 overs in the first innings and not being required for the second. Harmer though finished with seven wickets and also combined with Steyn in a 16-over spell, where the duo orchestrated a West Indian collapse, snaring seven victims between them.
To say that Harmer was an unknown quantity in India would be an understatement. Naman Ojha couldn’t even name him after the first day’s play of the practice match, instead referring to him as the ‘taller of the two who bowls with a high-arm action’. In Mohali, Harmer made more than a name for himself. He was the spinner Amla went to relieve the pacers or whenever his team needed to hold the Indians up. In the second innings, it was Harmer who took the new-ball. Tahir was used more as an impact spinner, brought in specifically to get wickets or run through the tail, which he did in the first innings. While Harmer’s wickets came via more orthodox routes — batsmen being trapped lbw by straighter ones or bat-padding off-breaks to short-leg — Tahir, who the Indians know all too well, outfoxed them with googlies and generating great bounce with his big-turning leg-breaks.
By entering their den and vanquishing them with weapons that the Indians are used to tackling since the time they start learning their craft, Tahir and Harmer have further illuminated the Pandora’s box that the likes of Moeen Ali and Nathan Lyon had pried open. Since the retirement of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, three of the four highest wicket-takers in Tests against India are spinners.
And you shudder to think how many this Indian batting line-up would have finished with if they had to face Ashwin and Jadeja on that Mohali wicket. Not that South Africa’s new spin-twin attack will make life any easier for them.