SPIN: Imran Tahir will bowl in the first Test against Australia despite an expensive performance against Australia A. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Imran Tahir. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

ADELAIDE — Cricket is a team game, but that does not spare the individual.

When the spotlight shines, there is no escape. No matter where the search delves for reasons to explain South Africa’s decline to Australia in the second Test, there is nothing to suggest otherwise that one man has been the difference between the teams. And his name is Imran Tahir.

There is nothing to suggest his immediate elevation to the Test team was wrong, or even slightly misguided. All the evidence suggested he deserved preferential treatment and was a "gamble" worth taking. He was the missing ingredient to make a very good team a great one.

His cricket skills remain unquestioned. No bowler in history has taken almost 650 first-class wickets at an average of 25 without possessing outrageous talent. His journey in Test cricket, however, has been strewn with potholes until this past weekend — when it hit a brick wall. The damage is immense, perhaps irreparable. Most insurance companies would write him off.

Despite being a confident and gregarious character, Tahir was "managed" a little too carefully at the beginning of his international career. Too little credit was given to the experience he had gained playing a dozen years for 16 first-class teams, and the Proteas’ management wrapped him in cotton wool. Tahir did not need protecting off the field and, perhaps, he did not need as much protection on it, either.

South Africa’s management were so desperate for Tahir to succeed that they believed he would benefit from "extreme" support. Protection from awkward interviews, no discussion about potential failure or "bad days at the office", little acknowledgment of the harsh, brutal realities of Test cricket.

In retrospect, would the management team have chosen a route of "tough love" ahead of the smothering, unconditional support he was given? Two innings returns of 0/180 and 0/80 add up to the worst of all time in a Test. Luck does not come into it. Why was he so poor? Perhaps, because he was "talked up" so much by team-mates and management, he felt an increased weight and burden of expectation.

What we heard was: "Imran is a high-quality cricketer, we back him all the way, it’s just a matter of time until he wins games for us, the big return is just around the corner."

How differently might Tahir have felt if contrary sentiments had been expressed? "Imran has done very well at first-class level, and that’s why we are picking him.

"But there is a big step up to the next level and it’s up to him to prove he has what it takes. There are no easy tickets in international cricket and Immy will have to earn his, the hard way if necessary."

He was presented as a virtually guaranteed match-winner, but also one who needed protection from (sorry — "management with") the media. A contradiction, surely?

Instead of believing he had to fight his way to the top, he was placed at the top from the outset and then had to justify being there.

Most sportsmen will tell you it is easier to win coming from behind rather than front-running, especially when you have been placed at the front of the pack.

AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis might bat for four hours to set up the possibility of an extraordinary draw. Jacques Kallis may yet play a role, too. Could Rory Kleinveldt bat for a session? And how glorious would it be for Tahir to survive the final 20 minutes to secure a draw? Fairytale stuff to book-end a nightmare.

There are showers forecast for the final day, too. Another straw to clutch at. Dale Steyn has taken five wickets in two Tests at an average of 52. Jacques Rudolph has been a massive disappointment.

But Tahir’s 260-run concession is the difference between the teams. They cannot be reclaimed.

Something, however, surely can be learnt from his caution-laden introduction to Test cricket.