Tahir's 0-180 off 23 overs in Australia's second innings in Adelaide last year was the ninth worst figures in Test history and the 34-year-old had not played a Test since for the Proteas until being picked to replace Robin Peterson for the Second Test against Pakistan in Dubai.
And the leg-spinner delivered picking up his career-best Test figures of 5-32 from 13 overs to lead the South Africans to a strong opening day where Pakistan was bowled out for a paltry 99.
The Proteas needed to bounce back as well from a disastrous First Test in Abu Dhabi where Pakistan shocked the No. 1 Test nation with a thumping seven-wicket victory.
South Africa is now in a strong position at stumps on Day 1 with Graeme Smith doing well to be 67 not out with the Proteas already moving to 3-128 to have a lead of 29 runs heading into the second day with seven wickets still remaining.
The performance from Tahir was a great reward for both the bowler himself and for the South African selectors.
It would have been easy for selectors to put a strike through his name for good following his disastrous showing in Adelaide last year, and it also would have been understandable for Tahir himself to give up on playing international cricket again especially at Test level.
However, the Pakistan-born leg-spinner does have a terrific first-class record with 673 wickets at a strong average of just over 26 so he earned another chance and delivered for his adopted country.
Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq won the toss and elected to bat first and with good reason after the showing from his batsmen in the First Test, but the innings got off to a disastrous start.
Khurram Manzoor scored his first international century in Abu Dhabi, but lasted just two deliveries this time before Dale Steyn, who passed a fitness test to play, picked him up the first over of the match.
Shan Masood and Azhar Ali somewhat steadied things for Pakistan before Morne Morkel trapped Ali in front for 19.
Tahir then came on and bowled Masood and suddenly Pakistan was 3-52, and then lost three wickets in no time with the score on 60.
Younis Khan was the first to fall for 10 when caught behind by AB de Villiers off Steyn before Misbah was gone for two when trapped LBW by Tahir and then Tahir also bowled Adnan Akmal for a duck.
Pakistan was then 6-60 then 7-64 with Saeed Ajmal run out for a duck.
Giant Mohammad Irfan was bowled by Tahir for a duck and Junaid Khan made just four before being bowled by Steyn but Zulfiqar Babar top-scored for the innings and remained 25 not out when Pakistan was all out for 99 in just 36.4 overs.
As well as Tahir's figures of 5-32 for South Africa, Steyn finished with 3-38, Morkel took 1-12 and Vernon Philander didn’t pick up a wicket conceded just nine runs in his five overs.
South Africa's opening partnership of Smith and Alviro Petersen has not been setting the world on fire of late and the pair did make 37 before Petersen was gone for 26 when judged LBW off the bowling of Zulfiqar Babar.
Dean Elgar came into the line-up to replace the injured Hashim Amla and made a solid 23 while combining for a 54-run second wicket partnership with Smith before he was caught by Ali off Ajmal with the score 2-91.
South Africa then took the lead with Smith at the crease with Jacques Kallis, but Kallis made just seven before being trapped in front to become Ajmal's second victim of the innings.
Steyn then came to the crease as nightwatchman and is three not out at stumps with captain Smith still there as well on 67.
Smith will now be hoping to make the most of his strong position heading into the second day having not scored a century since his 122 in the first innings against Australia in Adelaide in November last year.
In his 11 Test match innings since then, Smith's highest score was the 84 in the next Test against Australia in Perth last year and he has averaged just 30 so this is a chance for him to break his lean run of form in the white clothing.