It’s October 22, 2013, the eve of the second and final Test of the recently concluded Pakistan-South Africa series. Somewhere within the hypermodern concrete and plastic embrace of Dubai Sports City, Imran Tahir is practising, practising, a long afternoon shadow hanging over both the stadium and his career. His last outing in the colours of his adopted country, 11 months earlier to the day, had yielded, lest he forget, figures of 0 for 260 from 37 overs – the most expensive wicket-less match analysis in Test history. The first innings return of 23-0-180-0 was also a record for the highest economy rate in an innings analysis of over 20 overs: 7.82. As horror stories go, that was The Shining, The Exorcist and Evil Dead rolled into one – The Where Pitch Project, perhaps.
Anyway, despite the efforts of South African teammates and management – assistant coach Russell Domingo simply gave him a hug after his Adelaide mauling – he cannot have felt entirely at ease as he readied himself for his cricketing rehabilitation. Sure, they would have tried to rebuild his confidence, told him they believed in him. Words are one thing, but the pain – the sting of humiliation – still needed to be excised from the body. Everything he had striven for his whole adult life had evaporated like a puddle in the heat of that Adelaide afternoon. The South African fans had believed him to be the missing piece in the jigsaw. Well, he was still the missing piece in the jigsaw – or rather, the space where the missing piece should be. A proud, genial and upbeat man, this would have weighed heavily on his soul.
Then, 11 months after Adelaide, 11 months of a reputation marinating in vinegary ignominy, he received the call – an opportunity he would have dreamt of, perhaps dreaded. As we know, the following day, against the land of his late father, the boy from Lahore grabbed 5 for 32 for the land of his wife, of his passport. Pakistan crashed to 99 all out as he finished with match figures of 55-17-130-8. Redemption. A back-clinging primate’s paws prised away. Partially, anyway.
It’s the sort of story sport loves, and quite often delivers. In fact, the whole point of sport might just be that it offers up such archetypal narrative arcs. But it also much more often doesn’t deliver them. What if the doors of the last-chance saloon hadn’t swung open one last time? What does that notoriety do to a man? It’s not a good way to finish a career.
“He deserved better than that” is a platitude often trotted out in sport, rarely with any currency. Yet in Imran’s case, I know it to be true at first-hand…
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Back in 1999, when Immy was still 100 per cent Pakistani, South Africa still just a place he’d visited for an Under-19 World Cup and fallen in love with a girl from Durban, he headed to North Staffordshire to play what turned out to be the first of nine seasons in and around the Potteries.
His first club was Kidsgrove, alma mater of Jeremy Snape, former Performance Coach for South Africa. In 2002, he went to Norton-in-Hales, breaking Garry Sobers’ longstanding record for most wickets in a season as the club won the Premier League at their first attempt. They came third the following year, enough to convince my club, Moddershall, to sign him for the 2004 campaign – despite us having beaten them four times out of four, Imran taking only seven wickets across those games.
We started that season as joint-favourites for the title. However, a disastrous first four games led to the premature departure of an immature captain, a matter of hours before a mutiny, and I took on the captaincy. Our league prospects were stymied by too many draws, but we did reach both cup finals, duly lifting the club’s first ever Staffordshire Cup. Immy, always smiling, generally shaking more spectators’ hands than a politico on the election trail, had entered club legend.
We followed up in 2005 by finishing second in the league, agonising given that we had set the pace for almost the entire campaign. Somewhat surreally, the late Bob Woolmer, the former South Africa coach then in charge of Pakistan, who was keen to assess Immy ahead of a possible invite to a training camp, watched our game against the eventual champions. He enjoyed the cakes, I’m told. And the half-pint of ale.
For the next two seasons, I played in Nottingham, deciding that the travel and sundry duties were too time consuming while I was finishing a PhD. Imran also spent two years away – one in the North-East, another three miles down the road – but in 2008, we were reunited at Moddershall. However, with the club having survived two relegation dogfights in our absence, emerging a little battered and bruised from the experience, I was not particularly optimistic about our chances. Yes, there was Immy, and with him almost guaranteed wickets, but we’d lost four senior players, including the two best.
Immy’s fingers weren’t asked to endure the Arctic conditions in which our campaign began, and an affable Chris Lewis, seven months from his arrest, deputised in soupy light. Over the next three games – two more draws and a heavy defeat against the teams of a bullying Nathan Astle, bullish Lonwabo Tsotsobe and ebullient Tino Best – Imran picked up 4 for 236. To put that in context, a wicketkeeper of some 30 years – who, post-hip op, had given up the gloves to play solely as a batsman (or so he thought) – had bagged 7 for 73 with slow, looping off-breaks that more than stretched the latter’s definition. A no-mystery spinner, you might say. The following week produced another draw, and so we remained winless after five. Ordained Dudeist I may have been, but I did start to think, “the goddamn plane has crashed into the mountain.”
Finally, in mid-May, we got off the mark (Immy 40* and 6-66) and thereafter our transformation was dramatic. We embarked on a run of five wins from eight games, the other three being an abandonment and two winning draws with the opposition hanging on. We went against the tactical grain – win the toss, shove ’em in, knock ’em off – to post totals, unleash Immy, and thus pursue the extra five points for a bat-first win. Rocket science, it wasn’t.
And, of course, Imran – never happier than bowling, well, except that one time… – had wheeled away uncomplainingly, bagging his five and seven-fers, pestering the groundsman to play on the same track next game. We did, more than once, and ex-England batsman Kim Barnett’s face was a picture when he saw one such Bunsen. He also badgered me to move up the batting order from No.7. I occasionally let him swap with me at No.6 but he hardly ever played the situation: heart-attack material. In the meantime, Tino Best, facing an inevitable ban from the league, had been fired by Leek, the hot favourites. Incredibly, we found ourselves just a few points off the top of the table.
And then disaster struck.
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It’s fair to assume that when Imran first ventured to these shores he wasn’t here as a sightseer. I’m sure the denizens of Stoke-on-Trent will forgive me for saying this but, with the possible exception of fine bone china collectors, it’s not on many must-see tourist lists. So, when Hampshire confirmed in July 2008 that they wanted to sign our legspinner for the rest of the season, it was the realization of a long-held dream of his to earn a county contract – a dream that, following the Aristotelian model, had been preceded by pathos: i.e. a couple of nightmares.
To recap: his first taste of county cricket came in 2003 when, after a few games for Middlesex 2nds (batting at No.5), he played three early-season Championship games, picking up a combined 1 for 196 in the first two games as Andrew Strauss’s team twice followed on, and not bowling in the third. The following year, he played some 2nds at Durham; likewise in 2006 for Sussex. In 2007, he played against Sussex in the Championship for Yorkshire, returning 37-2-141-0 as they lost by an innings, following on. As CVs go, I think CB Fry had him covered. And Adrian Shankar, too, but that’s another story…
Nevertheless, Immy persisted and the following summer, a promising trial – and perhaps some desperation – persuaded Hampshire, then bottom of Division One, to take a punt. In his first game, at Old Trafford, he returned match figures of 12 for 189, a record for the county – which was marvellous, of course, but didn’t exactly help the Moddershall title chances. Priorities.
Our chairman at the time, being the sort of trusting soul ubiquitous among the armies of volunteers whose love and sweat tends the grassroots of English cricket, was perhaps not the ideal man to deal with Imran’s new agent, the upshot of which was the latter informing Hampshire he had some “verbal agreement” with us. So, with no pro and with some outstanding financial obligations vis-à-vis Imran – rent on a six-month tenancy, car, return air fare – the wee club in the shires found itself having to haggle with Hampshire over compensation.
Forcing Immy to keep his contract with us, even though we were in our rights to do so, was not an option since, naturally, we had no desire to stand in the way of his cricketing ambitions. But it’s fair to say that were not really being heard, or even listened to, by Hampshire, who, high-handed as a Barry Richards cover drive, merely referred us back to the arriviste agent. He offered us a derisory sum, one far short of the remainder of his deal, and told us we would have to get further compensation from Immy himself. Deciding to play hardball, we tried Hampshire again, actually threatening them with holding Immy to his contract. Nothing.
More than a little vexed, Immy looked at the remaining fixtures of both Hants and ourselves and told me that he’d be free to play four, maybe five, out of eight games, and that he’d inform Hampshire that he wanted to play for us whenever possible. And remember, a couple of false starts with his county career meant he wasn’t in a strong position to start making demands. Agents had mentioned Mohammad Hafeez and Malinga Bandara, but these were mere words. We needed wickets.
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The day after his debut dozen against Lancashire, Imran contributed 8-74 in a win over Knypersley on the aforementioned Bunsen, then headed to Canterbury for a game against Kent (another five-fer) that obliged us to engage a young Asad Ali in our draw at Stone.
The following week brought us a crucial win on a rain-ravaged afternoon that saw several other games succumb to the weather. Immy’s match against Yorkshire at the Rose Bowl, scheduled to finish on Saturday, had been won inside three days, so, with us having failed to find a deputy by Friday lunchtime, he headed north to chip in with 7-41 and 48 runs in a pinch-hitting role against Stafford before zipping off to Cheltenham for a 40-over game on Sunday. Before that little factoid persuades you that it must have been filthy bowling, Stafford’s left-arm spinning pro had played seven Tests for Sri Lanka, and was no mug.
A week without a Championship fixture ensured his availability for the trip to Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor’s neck of the woods, Burslem, but the game was truncated at tea by more inclement weather. So, Imran scooted off to Taunton (150 or so miles) for five days of cricket, returning to contribute a vital, unbeaten 21 to our 78 all out on the stickiest of dogs against Barlaston, then bagging 5-35 as the opposition, having slipped to 37 for 9, were eventually dismissed for a squeaky-bum-inducing 62.
It was on. The league was on. Three games left for our rag-tag-and-bobtail side to clinch the unlikeliest of titles – except that Hampshire had fixtures on two of the three remaining Saturdays. Things were getting serious, and we needed a degree of certainty of preparation, not lastminute.com fudges. Agents were phoned; county fixtures were scanned for availability and logistical permutations. One such permutation we hadn’t considered was Immy telephoning at lunch on Thursday, the second day of his game against Durham, eventual champions, at Basingstoke, to say, “We’re definitely going to be finished by tomorrow. Don’t get a pro!” And he was right. Not by much, but right he was.
I suppose it was a fair call at the time, given Mark Davies had just snaffled 8-24 – these club tracks, eh? – to rout the home side for 96. Immy then took 4-53 (match figures 7-58) to set up a fourth innings chase of 240, the highest total of the match by over a third. Not that it was feet-up time: he came in at 219 for 8 and, displaying hitherto unseen depths of application, repelled Graham Onions and company to help Hampshire over the line. A 130-mile journey later, he was at it again against Audley, contributing an immensely valuable 44 as we slipped to 40 for 5 in pursuit of 130.
Another 40-over match kept Imran out of the penultimate round of fixtures, for which we had engaged former Zimbabwe medium-pacer, Gary Brent – “a good choice”, according to Immy. However, two days’ rain on an already high water table obliterated the day’s programme – Gary returned all but £50 petrol money of his fee, incidentally – and so we went into the last game needing five measly bonus points to wrap things up. Immy was back in situ, ‘fresh’ from an innings victory over Surrey and Shoaib Akhtar. Easy peasy, you’d think. Well, not if we lost the toss and got shoved in on a sticky dog. Guess what happened…
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A distaste for false modesty compels me to mention that I scored 71 of our 125 all out against Little Stoke, a knock that began amidst the desolation of 22 for 5 with me about as close as I’m likely to get to the feeling of a mother whose child is trapped under a bus. Immy’s contribution was a first-baller from a leading edge. All this left us requiring two bonus points, four wickets, to wrap up the title – far from a foregone conclusion on a glutinous wicket with boundaries contracted to League-minimum distances in order to help concentrate our mopping up operation, which had begun at 7.30am. The game plan was simple: cross your fingers and chant inwardly, “Come on Immy, come on Immy, come on Immy!”
At 65 for 2, with their pro, a leftie, having just smeared a couple of sixes with the spin and into the neighbouring field, the Doomsday scenarios rushed vertiginously forth. The pain of 2005 was vivid for Immy, myself and a couple of others. However, a near-miraculous Superman catch at mid-off saw the back of the danger man and, the following over, our pro snuck a googly through the gate and it was done. Immy wheeled away to deep extra cover, off in that wild, screaming celebration that had so beguiled Hampshire, for whom he took 44 wickets at 16.68 to ensure survival, a celebration that had so delighted the South Africans watching the 2011 World Cup.
It was a celebration seen on October 23 in Dubai, too. And when it appeared, there were many people in a corner of north Staffordshire who shared the same outpouring of joy – people who had suffered as he had suffered in Adelaide; teammates who had seen the extraordinary love, dedication and commitment he’d shown to them five years earlier, and who had so hoped he might do himself justice on the international stage.
We like – perhaps even need – to believe that life’s rewards are doled out according to some grand cosmic reckoning, a calculus that matches dividend to good deeds done. Materially, we know that isn’t true. But spiritually? Well, if ever there was a cricketer who deserved a day stepping from his personal shadows and out into the sun – a cricketer who was owed one by karma – then that cricketer was Imran Tahir.
Seldom is the platitude “he deserved better” true, but this time I knew it to be profoundly so.