Tabraiz Shamsi is putting in the hard yards with the prospect of playing a match-winning role at the 2019 World Cup, writes KHALID MOHIDIN.
Tabraiz Shamsi has only played 27 days of international cricket since he took 1-36 in his eight overs for the Proteas against Australia in their 47-run win at Providence during the highly forgettable Tri-Nation Series in the West Indies. Nonetheless, he has become something of a fixture in a powerful bowling unit.
He only played twice on the recent white-ball tour of Australia, both of which were T20 fixtures, first a warm-up match against a Cricket Australia XI and then in the one-off T20I. He took a wicket in both matches and kept the batsmen to under seven runs an over in both matches.
SA Cricket magazine spoke to Shamsi on his return from that tour as the inaugural T20 Mzansi Super League was in full swing, and the spinner was looking forward to the opportunity to test his skills in a format he had dominated domestically at home and abroad last season. Having played in the Caribbean Premier League, the IPL and in the CSA T20 Challenge, Shamsi believes he can channel this experience into his one-day game.
‘The CPL and other T20 tournaments always help,’ he says. ‘A lot of people have a negative attitude to T20 leagues around the world – they think it’s about the money, but it has helped me. I don’t think I would have played international cricket if it wasn’t for the CPL and IPL.
‘That gave me experience, exposure and a different perspective from other countries and players. For example, I made my debut in the West Indies, but it never felt like that because I went to the CPL before that and did well in those conditions.
‘It gave me confidence and calmed me down. Playing in T20 leagues definitely helps. It’s a bit unfortunate that people think negatively regarding that. If you are going to play against top players in the World Cup, these tournaments give me the opportunity as a young player to bowl against those guys before the tournament.
‘If things don’t work out, at least I know I tried plan A against this guy and it didn’t work, I know I have to try something else. The experience in the IPL also gave me a big boost mentally. For example, in my first game, I bowled to MS Dhoni, who is the best finisher in the history of the game and I was doing well against him, which gave me confidence. If I could do it against the best in the world there’s no reason I can’t do it against the rest.’
Shamsi joined the Paarl Rocks for the Mzansi Super League and was captained by Proteas skipper Faf du Plessis. There could be no better place for the left-arm spinner to prove his worth than under his national captain’s supervision. Nonetheless, he separates the link between playing for the Rocks and the Proteas.
‘It’s a completely separate thing. You always have to perform, whether the skipper is with you or not,’ he says emphatically. ‘But it does help to have a captain who understands your bowling. I spent a lot of time with Faf in the national team, so that will be good.
‘On a side note, we could be working on plans for with the Proteas and not just for the Mzansi Super League. But it did help to have the captain close by.’
With Imran Tahir owning first pick in South Africa’s white-ball side, Shamsi’s opportunities have been limited, but despite the legacy of legendary pace bowlers, the Proteas have not shied away from considering the spin-twin approach in white-ball matches. The selectors have placed great faith in Shamsi as not only the backup for Tahir, but also as a potential partner for the Pakistani-born leg-spinner.
Not only has Du Plessis shown his affirmation for the two-spinner option, but so has Shamsi, who believes he will add great value to the Proteas’ already lethal bowling unit.
‘If you look at India, they have had success like that,’ he says. ‘Teams know Immy is the main threat in the middle overs because he has had so much success over a long period of time. So they can play him out cautiously and maybe give him one wicket instead of taking him on and providing him with three or four.
‘I feel I’m the same. When batsmen try to take us on as leg-spinners, we get the chances to take more wickets with our variation. Because players are aware or used to Immy, they can take it easier against him because they know they’ll only have to face him for 10 overs. So two spinners will definitely give us a good chance in the World Cup.
‘But whatever bowling unit is selected, we have a great attack so it doesn’t matter whether we play one or two spinners, but it’s definitely an option to play two.’
Despite accepting being the second-choice spinner in the Proteas set-up, Shamsi has refrained from negativity. He has kept a strong mindset, passion and belief in himself to make sure he stays fit and performs at a high level if selected.
‘I’m doing my work behind the scenes,’ he says. ‘We obviously know Immy is the No 1 spinner in the team, but there are games we are going to play two spinners, and I think that’s how world cricket is going. I will be ready whenever my opportunity comes, and all I’m going to do is work hard behind the scenes.
‘Even though I don’t play a lot of games, the work doesn’t stop. You work even harder when you are not playing because you can put more emphasis on your training. I’m pumped up and positive. Whatever is meant to happen, will happen, I’m just trying to do my best.’
On the recent tour to Sri Lanka, Shamsi played as the first-choice spinner and enjoyed success, taking 3-91 and 1-37 in the first Test in Galle, 4-33 and 2-62 in the ODIs and 2-26 in the T20I. He was punished by some powerful Zimbabwe hitting when he played as the second spinner against Zimbabwe, being hit for four sixes in a row by Peter Moor as part of an eight-ball, 40-run Zimbabwe blitz between Moor and Brandon Mavuta in the first T20I.
In the second T20I Shamsi was again taken to task by the Proteas’ northern neighbours, with Sean Williams smashing him for three sixes off his final over, and Moor chipping in with a boundary as Shamsi conceded 24 off the over.
‘The end result looked a lot worse than it was, but I don’t look at it that way,’ says Shamsi with a smile. The best of bowlers get carted on occasions, but his figures after his first three overs in both matches had been pretty decent at 0-18 and 1-13.
‘It doesn’t make a difference if I’m the first- or second-choice spinner. It’s nice playing with Immy, because as a bowling unit and a team it helps. The other team can’t just block Immy out because they know he is a big weapon in the middle overs. They have to take me or him on. I have confidence that at least one of us will take a few wickets and vice versa. I don’t think there’s a difference if I’m the first or second spinner.’
Tahir has become a mentor for the 28-year-old and not a rival. This shows the respect Shamsi has for the world’s best spinner, while his drive to learn from Tahir (instead of questioning his selection) is a trait that can be highly admired.
‘He always helps me out. We always talk about things and share ideas, it’s not one-way traffic. If I pick up something I give him my point of view and vice versa. We are both leg-spinners, so that helps.’
Shamsi’s drive and determination can never be doubted, as he has and will always sacrifice for the good of the team. This was demonstrated when he left Sri Lanka mid-tour due to the passing of his father. Shamsi flew directly back to the team the following day to be available for selection and to support them.
‘It’s obviously a big loss for anybody, but the reason I only left for one day and returned immediately was because I wanted to do duty for my country. I wasn’t selected for that Test, but it doesn’t make a difference to me. I just wanted to make sure I was present and available. It was obviously a big tragedy, but I didn’t want to affect the team.’
While he’s 100% a team player, don’t for a moment think he’s the kind of squad man who is happy to sit on the sidelines or hang on to the coattails of his teammates. He’s eyeing the prize of making a real impact in the 2019 World Cup, if he gets the chance.
‘I’m never happy to just be around the team. I never take the field just to get by my 10 overs. I like to do something special,’ says Shamsi, as he looks off into the distance for a moment. It’s certainly the right time to be doing something special, and Shamsi has the talent and the drive to do just that in England in June and July.
This article was published in a previous edition of SA Cricket magazine.
Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP