It’s the somewhat uncoordinated sprint – the man screaming with joy, his arms pumping – that has become the defining image when it comes to Imran Tahir. It doesn’t matter which team he is playing for, what format it is, if he gets a wicket – and he gets a lot of them – the 38-year-old South African will run like hell.
There are celebrations and there are celebrations – Tahir’s is more than just an expression of joy at having done something useful.
As he tells Wisden India, it’s a bit of a thank-you note, an expression of gratitude to all the people, and Allah, who have helped him get where he has. What a ride it has been too, one that took him from Pakistan to England to South Africa … and the party hasn’t stopped.
Born in Lahore to a lower middle-class family in March 1979, Tahir started playing cricket seriously as a youngster and made it to the Pakistan Under-19s and the Pakistan A team while working in a retail outlet to help his family. That’s where his prospects ended, though. Off he went to England, first, and then South Africa to play cricket and to be with the woman he would end up marrying – Sumayya Dildar, whom he had met in 1998 while on a Pakistan A tour. Since then, 2005, he has lived in South Africa. And, after he got the permissions, he has been a frontline South African cricketer, currently the No. 1 in both One-Day Internationals and Twenty20 Internationals.
Here are excerpts from a chat about life, love, loyalty, and much more:
Everyone talks about you being a fun-loving, large-hearted man. On the field, with your celebratory runs, it’s easy to see why.
I’ve always been like this. I enjoy myself everywhere that I go and play. I think I have got it from my parents – they always asked me and my brothers to respect everyone, always be humble. Yeah, I’m just trying to be successful in whatever I do. Celebration part – I don’t have an answer. It’s probably just inside me. All the hard hurdles I have had to go through in life, maybe that’s what comes out … I am very grateful to Allah that I have this opportunity. Play against these amazing players. It just gives me another kind of energy. Especially when I perform well. I think it’s the energy that comes out.
But it can’t come out the same way each time – surely you do it now because it’s become so popular?
I promise you … I really don’t know. I run anywhere. It just depends. Every wicket I take, any international wicket, club wicket, IPL wicket … it’s an honour. I have always dreamt about it. I just want to enjoy it. So I start running.
You moved out of Pakistan to have a better shot at international cricket, and then to South Africa because of Sumayya?
Playing international cricket was my dream. But the main reason I went to South Africa was to see my wife. We weren’t married yet. We got married in 2006.
People think it’s easy when they see me now, that he didn’t get a chance in Pakistan so he went to South Africa. But I lived in South Africa for five years to make this happen. It was a hand-to-mouth existence in England before that. But I had the desire to show everyone that I had the talent and the ability to do well at this level, to train and play and be in international cricket. I didn’t know if it would happen, but I gave it my best. Even in England, I was loyal to the club. They couldn’t pay me much at Middlesex or at Staffordshire, but money wasn’t the main thing. Even in club cricket, I wanted respect, and I wanted to be loyal to whoever I played for.
The opportunity I had from Staffordshire – they were paying me, and I wanted to pay them back. Even in international cricket, I wanted to do the same. And I just carry on in the same path.
After moving to South Africa, you became eligible to be picked in the national team only in 2011. What made the wait worth it?
She (Sumayya) wanted me to play in South Africa. So I tried, and when I got the contract, I stayed on. I call it destiny. I don’t know what it is. But I’m just really grateful that I got the opportunity, thanks to Allah and my family and my wife. They knew I was capable of playing international cricket. It came late, very late, but I have no complaints.
You finally played international cricket in 2011, when you were well past 30.
Yes, that’s true. But who knows what would have happened if I had stayed on in Pakistan. It might be late, but it might never have happened if I didn’t move to South Africa. Now I wish I could have come earlier, when I was 28. But I have played for a few years and I will play for a few more years. As long as I can. This is a lot to get in life.
So many players in so many countries struggle for years to get the big break. Do you think many players in Pakistan might have a grudge against you because of the route you took even as they struggled?
I think most of them are happy. I don’t know if some people are not. No one has ever told me this to my face. I have so many friends there. Some of them are cricketers too. My family is there. I know so many people in Pakistan. Look, I don’t know how to put it – I don’t think there is any anger against me; even if there is, I don’t think there will be many people. I have heard some words from the crowd while playing in the UAE, but that’s normal. I think most people love me. I have got lots of calls and messages from people and they have all been nice. They were happy that I had succeeded in international cricket. Everyone who knew me knew about my ambitions, they knew what I wanted. Old cricketers – they all knew that I was always very hyper, and I wanted to achieve success.
On his manic celebratory runs
“I don’t have an answer. It’s probably just inside me. All the hard hurdles I have had to go through in life, maybe that’s what comes out… I promise you, I really don’t know. I run anywhere. It just depends. Every wicket I take, any international wicket, club wicket, IPL wicket … it’s an honour. I have always dreamt about it. I just want to enjoy it. So I start running.”
Do you think of yourself as Pakistani or South African?
I have to be honest with you – I was born in Pakistan, I lived many years of my life in Pakistan. So I am Pakistani. But the opportunity I have came from South Africa. My wife is there. My home is there. So I feel very close to South Africa.
And you are a Pakistani who can’t play international cricket in Pakistan. No one can right now. Does that hurt?
It would have definitely been very nice to play in Pakistan. I would have been very happy. In front of all my family and relatives. They would have loved it too. It would have given me a high. I used to watch teams coming to play in Pakistan when I was a kid. No teams come any more, which is very sad. I sincerely hope cricket will return to Pakistan soon. I didn’t always get a chance to go and watch at the grounds, but I saw a few one-dayers, one or two days of a Test match against England once. But there used to be a buzz, a lot of excitement when there was a cricket match. And that was great fun.
You keep talking about the gratitude you feel towards South Africa. How deep is this gratitude?
Oh, the one thing I can say is that I can give my life for South Africa. That’s how grateful I am. That’s how high I can go for South Africa. Whatever I have got in life is because of South Africa. They are the most lovely people. Rainbow Nation. Love comes from everywhere in the Rainbow Nation. The nation and the cricket community – I hope I have been doing justice to their faith in me. As long as I can play, I want to give back what I can. I have got tremendous respect from South Africa and I hope to give as much respect back. And I think … we have some good spinners coming through, like Tabraiz Shamsi, Keshav Maharaj, Aaron Phangiso. Nice to see that in a country of fast bowlers. It gives me a lot of joy – maybe I have had an influence. It’s a very good feeling.
Along with the respect, a big World Cup trophy would be nice too, right?
Oh yes, definitely. The 2019 World Cup is the target. I don’t think too much about how long I can go on. I am 38. So these two years … ten years back, I was loyal to my training and I am still loyal to my training. As you get older, you need more training. I work the whole year with the trainers and physios, at Dolphins back home, with my club teams, at the national team … we have to work hard. It gets tougher as you get older, but that’s the only way to play longer.
AB de Villiers keeps talking about the 2019 World Cup, he is even cutting down on his cricket for it.
The 2019 World Cup is very big for us. Huge. For our nation. We really need to win it. If it happens, it will bring people in South Africa even closer, the communities … we deserve it. We play very good cricket till we go to the quarters and the semis. The 2015 World Cup was very devastating. The team we have got, we can do something special. I won’t say luck; we just need to play a bit better on the day. I have no doubt we have the players, we have the perfect team to win trophies and championships. All of us are looking forward to the next two years – the Champions Trophy and the World Cup.
On whether he feels Pakistani or South African
“I was born in Pakistan, I lived many years of my life in Pakistan. So I am Pakistani. But the opportunity I have came from South Africa. My wife is there. My home is there. So I feel very close to South Africa. The one thing I can say is that I can give my life for South Africa. That’s how grateful I am. That’s how high I can go for South Africa. Whatever I have got in life is because of South Africa. They are the most lovely people. Love comes from everywhere in the Rainbow Nation.”
Since I brought up AB – how it is to bowl to him in the nets, what’s he like?
AB – it’s just like … for me, obviously, it’s exciting and I hate it. For me, he is the best player ever that I have bowled to. I am very lucky that the two batsmen I would hate to bowl to the most are both in my team – Hashim Amla and AB. Unbelievable players. The world knows how good AB is. He is one of the most humble guys. South Africans are lovely people, and AB is a wonderful man. He gives a lot of love to the people. A family man. Fantastic human being.
You keep talking about the people – when it comes to cricket, we have read and heard of the transformation policy and targets. The players have also had their meetings and spoken about it. Have team selections occasionally left a bad taste in the mouth?
I think … there’s never been an issue since I have been playing. And I missed those meetings, because I was away playing county cricket. I honestly see the culture as being one where everyone respects each other. I can tell you that, among the players, there’s only respect.
It’s not like in any other team. That’s why it’s called Rainbow Nation. Everyone is playing together, people from all communities. In all sports, not just cricket. Biggest thing is respect. We respect our families, the different cultures, each other. We have got the perfect culture in the team. No issues. No one has any complaints.
Also read: Imran Tahir and the Where Pitch Project
Coming to your bowling – you have become No. 1 in both ODIs and T20Is, wickets all over the world … Would you talk us through your bowling philosophy, especially against top players like Virat Kohli and others?
For me, the main thing is to bowl wicket to wicket. If I can spin it, I want to spin it into the stumps and always try to hit the wickets. In IPL, people expect spinners to take wickets. But if the pitch is not turning, what do you do? You go to Plan B, and that’s to bowl wicket to wicket. You have to. If you are not trying to hit the stumps, then there is no point. The batsmen are so good. Kohli. Give a little margin and the ball goes flying. No margin at all. No room. Sweep, reverse sweep, slog sweep, paddle sweep … they all have all the shots. I feel you just need very good planning. Lots of plans: A, B, C, D … can’t bowl the same ball; you will be murdered. So keep mixing them up, legspin, googly, the straighter one … lines, lengths. It is a tough league and modern cricket is very tough. You have to adjust every ball.
One-day cricket is the same. With five fielders in, it’s very difficult for a spinner. People don’t realise it, but it’s very difficult. It’s one of the hardest things, you have no protection. But I think about it positively. It makes me a better bowler, because you have to bowl more good balls. I think of every game as my last game, give my 100 per cent, do what benefits the team. If I do well, the team will do well.
[Tahir has played 74 ODIs and 31 T20Is, picking up 127 and 54 wickets in the two formats respectively at averages of 23.65 and 13.70. His strike rate in ODIs is 30.6 and in T20Is, it’s 12.8. At the T20 level, he has 181 wickets from 153 matches, with an average of 20.93 and a strike rate of 17.9.]
Not being picked by any of the teams at the IPL auction must have hurt …
Obviously. It was very sad. But I was really relieved to get a chance later, and I have got a chance to play and do well (for Rising Pune Supergiant). I was quite down so I wanted to prove myself again when I got the chance. My job is to pick wickets for my team, any team, and I am happy to do that now.
Is it disappointing not to play more long-form cricket?
Well, I not sure what the selectors are thinking – I haven’t played much in the last couple of years, except in county cricket. I will be going back to Derbyshire now, so I will get some more red-ball cricket.
[Tahir has played 20 Test matches, the last of them in December 2015, picking up 57 wickets at an average of 40.24.]
Especially in T20 cricket, spinners on the whole and legspinners specifically, have done really well. What makes you better than the pack, the No. 1?
I won’t compare myself to anyone. I always feel I go in with a big heart and I want to do well for South Africa, for the people, then for my family. And I have to give everything. I’m sure other bowlers do the same. I don’t do anything different. Sometimes I don’t do well, but I want to go back and sleep in peace, thinking I have given it my best. That’s the greatest satisfaction. More than No. 1.
Finally, your appearance has changed over the years. The beard – it’s a religious thing, isn’t it?
It is, yes. I would like to follow Islam properly. I was always religious, but I didn’t do it properly in the past. My brothers and all had beards. I didn’t. Now I want to practice Islam and I want to do it properly, be as good a human being as I can be.
The change in hair colour is obviously more style than religion …
(Laughs) Yes, that’s not religious – I always wanted to do it. I tried to change now and then. I went black, then this. And I wear a band while playing – that’s to keep the hair away from my eyes. Everyone knows I am not a good caught-and-bowled guy.