Tabraiz Shamsi’s ascent in T20I cricket is testimony to the value of an apprenticeship, dedication to his craft and an unrelenting belief in his gift. He goes to the T20 World Cup as one of the format’s match-defining forces, writes RYAN VREDE.
Six years ago, Shamsi could get only five matches for Easterns in the 2014-15 domestic T20 competition. In October, he will arrive at the T20 World Cup as the format’s top-ranked bowler and, together with Quinton de Kock, the Proteas’ most potent weapon.
The man nearest to him in the rankings, Rashid Khan, is 91 points adrift. Given that the Olympics is under way, I’ll use an athletics analogy to illustrate the significance: If this were a 400m race, Shamsi would be finishing while Khan was coming around the final bend.
Shamsi is seven wickets short of breaking Australia seamer Andrew Tye’s record of 31 T20I wickets in a calendar year (through 18 matches in 2018). He has five matches to take those seven wickets in, all of them on the subcontinent.
Even if he doesn’t do it in those five, barring injury or a dramatic loss of form, he is almost certain to finish the calendar year as the format’s leading wicket-taker.
His rise is even more notable when you consider that of the 39 T20I matches he’s played, the first dozen or so of those came in an infrequent manner. During that period, Imran Tahir was the Proteas’ preferred T20I option, and with good reason.
This apprenticeship, and the patience and work ethic it demanded, would later shape the international bowler Shamsi became.
Tahir last played T20I cricket on 19 March 2019. Shamsi replaced him for a match on 22 March, turning in an outstanding four overs against Sri Lanka at Centurion, during which he conceded just 16 runs and took two wickets. His time had come.
His graph has not curved upwards steeply since then. Indeed, there were initially widespread laments about his control and overly aggressive approach, expressed through a reluctance to settle for anything less than deliveries designed to take wickets.
Time has refined him. His tactical nous has improved markedly, as has his control, while his wicket threat has been amplified.
His economy rates this season have been brutally constrictive. This is the sequence (bowled four overs each time): 5.00, 4.00, 6.25, 7.25, 5.50, 13.00, 5.25, 6.75, 4.00, 3.25, 3.25, 2.75, 6.75 and 3.50. In a format where run restriction is directly linked to the team’s success, Shamsi has become the Proteas’ most valuable bowler.
Building a unit around him that is similarly miserly must be the coaches’ focus. Overall, the Proteas have struggled outside the PowerPlay when Shamsi has not been bowling, which has contributed significantly to their inconsistency in the format this year.
There is immense promise in the attack, though, with Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje building to their best, while George Linde has emerged as a highly competent spinner, whether deployed at the top of the innings or elsewhere.
The Proteas have yet to find the fifth and sixth bowling options, although Dwaine Pretorius’ return from a Covid-protocol-related sidelining is likely to ease some concern.
Setting aside skills deficiencies in the seamers that must be urgently remedied, those five give the Proteas bowling a formidable look going into the World Cup, with Shamsi the cornerstone of that attack.
His rise has been notable, and has been fuelled by a work ethic that his coaches and teammates have consistently lauded. He also has a mindset that makes him hard to beat.
This mindset has defined him since he was a teenager. He used to dabble with fast bowling before a teacher suggested he switch to spin, encouraging him to bowl left-arm orthodox. Shamsi, though, opted to bowl wrist spin. ‘I wanted to be that guy who does the hard stuff,’ he told espncricinfo.com.
His rise has been marked by doing the hard stuff.