Proteas captain Faf du Plessis scored an unbeaten 112 off 114 balls as they got the better of Sri Lanka in the first ODI at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Saturday. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

JOHANNESBURG – At times in the last year, Imran Tahir has looked like he was hanging on to make the World Cup.

He’s not bowled badly in that period, but his impact on matches hasn’t been as profound as on other occasions throughout his career. It could be that all this selectorial experimenting that’s been going on has upset his rhythm, or maybe he’s just saving himself for England.

No one has publicly questioned his value to the Proteas – in fact, he is one of a handful of players whose World Cup spots were probably secured a while ago – but he needed a dominant performance just to remind everyone – himself included – of the threat he can provide.

Tahir was not among those given a one year contract by Cricket SA last week, leading to questions about his international future. Certainly next season is more Test focused than this summer for the South African team, and with a Test tour to India in October, and Tabraiz Shamsi having been picked to support Keshav Maharaj in Sri Lanka last year, Tahir’s role with the Proteas will be limited – if he still chooses to play international cricket.

Right now however he remains a vital component of the national One-Day team and he delivered a sparkling performance in the first ODI against Sri Lanka on Sunday that served to underline his continued value and why he will be crucial to plans in England.

South Africa’s 50-over strategy is to keep taking wickets and Tahir is integral to those plans as he proved on Sunday. His impact was virtually immediate, and it had a profound effect on the match, which is just how Faf du Plessis wants it.

The Sri Lankans, batting first after Du Plessis called correctly at the toss, were cruising along at 97/2 at the end of the 16th over, on a surface that played truer than was the case the last South Africa played an ODI here against Pakistan five weeks ago.

The early dismissals of Niroshan Dickwella and Upul Tharanga – both falling to Lungi Ngidi in his first match for the Proteas since last year’s tour to Australia – had been off-set by an effervescent stand between Oshada Fernando and Kusal Perera. Fernando, in particular, was having plenty of fun, belting both Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada back over their heads for sixes.

Tahir entered the fray in the 17th over and with his fourth ball had the hero of Kingsmead, Perera caught behind by Quinton de Kock with a beautiful delivery that slid on straight with the angle and flicked the edge.

He nearly had a wicket with his next ball with Kusal Mendis getting an inside edge that went passed the stumps. Tahir’s, flight, spin and pace were outstanding and the pressure he created accounted for Fernando’s wicket. Mendis was desperate to get his teammate back on strike but picked out the wrong fielder in the South African side to challenge. David Miller produced a fine diving stop and in one motion through the ball back to De Kock who broke the stumps with Fernando just short of his ground.

He made 49, but such was the aggression with which he was playing that had he stayed another 15 overs, the outcome of the match could have been very different. Although Mendis, who went on to make 60 and Dhananjaya de Silva added 94 for the fifth wicket, they were never able to make South Africa feel uncomfortable.

Tahir bowled for much of the first half of their partnership conceding 18 runs in a cunning seven-over spell. He returned in the 37th over and with his second ball had de Silva stumped by De Kock for 39 following which he dismissed Mendis at the end of his ninth over.

His final figures of 3/26 in 10 overs represented arguably his best performance of the season and is welcome confidence lifter a few months before the World Cup.

There was also an encouraging debut for Anrich Nortje who bowled with very good pace and picked he picked up a maiden international wicket, while Ngidi looked free of any ailments, claiming 3/60.

South Africa’s fielding, which will be under the microscope in this series was efficient and for the most part clean with Miller’s run out of Fernando the highlight.

Du Plessis and Quinton de Kock knocked stuffing out of the chase, sharing a stand of 136 for the second wicket. The South African captain, who has averaged 59.75 in ODIs in the last two years, struck some wonderful shots as he notched up his 11th ODI century, further emphasising his importance to the side not just as its leader but one of the key batsmen too. He struck the winning runs in the 39th over, finishing not out on 112 (114b, 15x4, 1x6).

De Kock made a typically fluent 81, continuing the good form he has shown all summer.

* Andile Phehlukwayo missed Sunday’s match with a bruised left hand sustained while training on Saturday.  The injury isn’t serious and he will be considered for selection for the second ODI in Centurion on Wednesday.