If Robin Peterson had eyes in the back of his head, they would be fixed on Newlands this weekend. While Peterson and the South African team will be in Port Elizabeth contesting the second Test against New Zealand, the Lions will take on the table-topping Cobras in a first-class fixture in Cape Town, with the resurgent Imran Tahir as part of their pack.
Tahir took 12 wickets in his last match to bowl the Lions to victory on a dry pitch in Durban where the bounce aided him. His tally since returning from his embarrassing Adelaide outing sits at 17 wickets in three matches at an average of 18.29. In that time, he has bowled only one no-ball, showing marked improvement from his constant overstepping on tour.
More importantly, he has regained his self-esteem which was left shredded after his Australian experience. “When he came back to us after the tour, he was very down,” Lions coach Geoffrey Toyana told ESPNcricinfo. “But he has worked really hard and he is enjoying himself now and his confidence is up again.”
Under Toyana, the Lions have had a culture change. Almost all of their squad credits that to the new energy and enthusiasm in the group and it seems to be contagious. Tahir returned to them to play in the domestic one-day cup final which was washed out on both the scheduled day and the reserve day. He took two wickets in two overs when the match was replayed and seemed to have a good time as he started to erase the Australian nightmare from memory.
He has come into his own in the longer form again thanks to careful coaxing by Toyana and his bowling coach Gordon Parsons. “We’ve told him not to try too many things at once,” Toyana said. Tahir’s desperation for variety cost him in Australia where he also failed to flight the ball and bowled quicker and flatter with little success. “His googly is working well for him and he has done very well against the left-handers,” Toyana said.
The Lions have given Tahir a clear role and have altered their strategy when using him, which has also worked well. Tahir is an out and out strike bowler for them whereas at national level he has to balance between attack and defence. But he has not used his mandate as a wicket-taker to leak runs. In 112.1 overs, Tahir conceded 311 runs across the three matches, at a rate of 2.77 runs an over.
Toyana explained that field placings have helped Tahir create pressure and take wickets. “We’ve started off by getting the outfielders around in his first few overs and then once he has found rhythm, we bring in the short leg and the silly point and those kinds of close catchers,” he said. “It’s worked well for now because batsmen always try to attack Imran and with what we are doing, they have not got away with that.”
With Tahir “still very much part of our plans,” according to both coach Gary Kirsten and convener of selectors Andrew Hudson, Peterson should be feeling the heat. Although his Test comeback yielded six wickets, and subsequent match 1 for 42, he was guilty of delivering some loose balls and Brendon McCullum labelled him “innocuous”.
Petersen is not letting outside influences affect him too much. “I like to stick to one game at a time. If you try and look too far ahead, you can get caught up in things,” he said. At 33-years-old, he may not be thought to have a lengthy career ahead of him but Petersen had previously said he is of the school who believes cricketers really blossom after 30, so he hopes for an extended run.
He is also confident that he the right fit for the current South African outfit, because he offers a more all-round package than Tahir. “At the moment, I probably fit into what they want. I’d like to think I can win games for South Africa in the second innings when conditions suit and provide a bit of stability in the first innings,” he said. “My role with the bat lower down the order is also important and there’s the fielding aspect of it. I probably offer a few more dimensions.”
While the merits of the mostly-containing versus the mostly-aggressive spinner continue to be debated in South African cricket, Peterson is enjoying his homecoming. Originally from Port Elizabeth, Peterson now plays his domestic cricket in Cape Town but admits it will be “special” to play a Test on his home turf.
“It’s nice to see things come full circle for me from where it all started,” he said. “I took my first five-for at St George’s Park so hopefully it will be my first Test five-for as well.” If it is, there may be no need to keep an eye on Tahir at all.