Sleight of hand
Tabraiz Shamsi is unique and true to himself as a bowler.
“Imran Tahir was a great mentor to me. He taught me a lot of things. One of the best pieces of advice he gave me was that the ‘higher up you go, the better batters are going to hit you all over the park.’ It helped me to be fearless,” says Tabraiz Shamsi.
If you are not a subscriber of Stumped!, join more than a thousand other professional athletes & ex-pros, coaches, commentators & analysts and casual sports fans that receive the newsletter in their inbox each week — it’s free:
Tabraiz Shamsi was around six years old when he saw a magician perform for the first time. The Shamsi family had made the trip to the Nasrec Expo Centre for the Rand Easter Show.
The man, the magician, performed a trick that left everyone, adults included, speechless. For young Tabraiz, only one word came to mind, 'Wow!' Shamsi doesn't remember what the trick was, it was too long ago. What he does remember is that he fell in love with magic that afternoon.
“It wasn’t a phase,” says Shamsi. “From that day until I turned 16, I wanted to be a professional magician, then cricket took over.”
20 years later, Shamsi was leaving people speechless in the Caribbean with his magic. In 2016, during one of his Caribbean Premier League stints, Shamsi bamboozled Mike Haysman with a wonderful magic trick. It’s Shamsi’s favourite magic trick. Two years later, Shamsi left Dan Nicholl in a state of disbelief after he performed the same trick on Nicholls's show.
Shamsi's magic is sleight of hand. There are no grand movements meant to take attention away from his person. His magic is how his bowling is, sleight of hand.
Jarrod Kimber once remarked that Shamsi looks docile when bowling. Shamsi does not possess the presence of a predatory alpha-male spinner, like Rashid Khan or Wanindu Hasaranga, for example. Ball after ball, he gently loads up his left-arm wrist spin in a friendly way.
But, he takes wickets and maintains a low economy in the process. Shamsi’s bowling is like sleight of hand magic tricks, it’s beguiling.
In 2020, Shamsi dismissed Joe Root and Eoin Morgan with the third and fifth balls of his first over. As the two men sat in the pavilion, they discussed their dismissals as Michael Cabonaro's victims would. They had no idea what happened, it was sorcery.
If you’re enjoying this post, it would be awesome if you shared it with your friends. Thanks, as always, for supporting Stumped!
“Look, don't waste your time practising, you're not going to get selected.” Cyril Mitchley was standing a few metres away from Tabraiz Shamsi when he said those words. Shamsi almost stopped in midstride.
Mitchley, Shamsi’s coach at Jeppe Boys’ High, had seen Shamsi working on his bowling alone in the nets from his office and had gone to investigate. Mitchley had windows that overlooked the nets and cricket fields. No practice was scheduled for that day. The shadows were growing longer. It was late afternoon.
There was nothing odd about the sight. It was normal for Shamsi to stay on in the nets after everybody else had dispersed. On some days, Mitchley and Shamsi stayed on together. This happened mostly on days when Shamsi would be walking home. The distance between home and school was not too long for Shamsi to walk. Though, his family would pick him up whenever possible.
On many occasions, coach and student would practice well past sundown and Mitchley would have to drive the boy home. Sometimes they shared supper, where coach and student would discuss cricket, mostly.
“Don’t waste your time practising…” Mitchley knew that the words would stick with Shamsi throughout his preparation for the upcoming Under-15 trials. That was the reason why Shamsi was in the nets alone. He was preparing for the trials.
“Cyril Mitchley understood the type of character I am,” says Shamsi. “He was not saying it as a way to bring me down. It was just his way of pumping me up to push even harder because that's what gets the best out of me.”
Shamsi does not know about Ray Allen. Allen is a two-time NBA champion. He has won the Olympic gold medal with Team USA and has been an All-star on numerous occasions.
When Allen was younger, he went for trials with a boy called Kenny. Part of the trials was a free-throw shooting session. Allen scored 23 of 25 baskets. Instead of congratulating his friend, Kenny told Allen, ‘you won’t make the team.’ After Allen made the team, Kenny told him, ‘you will always be on the bench. You won’t start.’ As they were heading out.
A few years later, when Allen got a scholarship to the University of Connecticut, former schoolmates started a rumour that even though Allen had earned a scholarship, he was not good enough to start for UConn. So, he would sit on the bench for four years and come back to town as an alcoholic.
‘We’ve all had a Kenny or two in our lives, someone who tells us we’re not good enough. The question is: Do we let ourselves believe them?’ Allen writes in his autobiography, From the Outside. Kenny's voice stayed in Allen's head. He used it to propel him forward.
Like Allen, Shamsi has a fire inside him, and doubters add wood to that fire. Shamsi knows what people say about him. Others have said the same things before, using different words and different sentences, but with the same meaning. He was not good enough. While he cannot change their thinking, he can show them they are wrong about him.
Shamsi had a bit of a rebel streak in him. His first instinct was to push back when someone said Shamsi could not do something.
He wanted to walk his path and he was determined to show the world that he was right in choosing that path. The only time when he deviated from his chosen path was when coaches at the Under-14 trials that he attended told him he could never make it as a pace bowler.
“They said I was not fast enough to be a pace bowler. But I thought I was fast. I wanted to be like Wasim Akram. When I was young I could watch Wasim Akram bowl all day, given the chance,” says Shamsi. At the time, Shamsi varied his pace and bowled a few cutters, so one of the coaches suggested that he should become a finger spinner.
When Shamsi asked why the coach thought he should be an offspinner, he expected a profound answer. Instead, he was told that it was the easiest to control.
“That’s why I decided against offspin. Maybe if he had told me that it troubles batsmen more, I might have chosen it. I didn't want to do it because it was easier to control,” again, Shamsi was pushing back.
Cyril Mitchley understood this side of Shamsi early on.
“Mitchley knew how to push the right buttons with me,” says Shamsi.
“I used to rag him a lot,” says Mitchley. “When I wanted to fire Shamsi up, I would wind him up. I would tell him that the batters were going to tear him apart, and hit him all over the park. In response, he would tear down batting attacks.”
Mitchley was right, though, about Shamsi not making the team. Shamsi made the B-team. But, it was not because Shamsi had performed poorly. Someone just felt that they did not need Shamsi’s bowling. During the trials week, no bowler took as many wickets as he did. He also had the best economy. The bowler of the tournament failed to make the A-team.
In the following years, Shamsi would attend age-group trials wanting much, but expecting little. He was one of those kids destined to never be picked, yet he still gave it his all.
Stumped! is a reader-supported newsletter. Those who opt to leave tips (buy coffees) or become patrons are taking an active role in the work that I do by providing vital assistance to bolster my independent coverage of cricket. Feel free to forward this post to family and friends interested in cricket and/or cricketers.
"There weren't too many days when Shamo didn't have a smile on his face," says Rob Walter, Shamsi's head coach at the Titans. "He had a great nature. He was always bouncing around and you felt he appreciated the privilege of playing professional cricket."
Shamsi joined the Titans after Grant Morgan, the KZN Inland coach, had asked Walter to take Shamsi on board.
Morgs, as Morgan is affectionately known, felt that Shamsi was too good for semi-pro cricket. The young man was single-handedly winning matches for KZN Inland. Unfortunately for Shamsi, opportunities were limited at the Dolphins.
“I could have kept him at Inland,” says Morgs. “But he deserved to go to a franchise that could give him the right opportunities.”
It is difficult to not be grateful for the opportunity to play professional cricket if you are Tabraiz Shamsi. His rise was not fast-tracked. No one earmarked him for greatness. Years later, Imran Tahir, who took Shamsi under his wing, introduced Shamsi to Prasanna Agoram.
At their first net session, Shamsi showed up with a pen and notepad. That impressed Prasanna. What impressed Prasanna more was Shamsi’s bowling - there was more work to be done to improve it, but it was good and different. After the session, Prasanna told Shamsi that he would be the world's number spinner one day.
30 minutes after parting, a soft-spoken Shamsi sent Prasanna a text that read:
“Bhai, it was so kind of you to say I am going to be the number one spinner in the world. I don't think I can dream about it, but I am more motivated to push myself harder. If I tell someone that PDogg told me that I am going to be the number one spinner in the world, they will laugh at me. I don't want people to laugh at me. I won't tell anyone. But I want people to see me when I get there. I will work towards it.”
Shamsi was acutely aware of how he had gotten to where he was. He had taken the long road from street cricket to the big time. He went from fetching balls at the back of the nets to bowling to tailenders in the nets. Top-order batters preferred other spinners whom they felt provided better practice. He didn’t mind that few people paid attention to him, he just showed up every day.
A couple of seasons before joining the Titans, Shamsi suffered an injury. He injured a tendon in his bowling arm, so he was out for six months. Kimeshin Chetty was also injured at the time. He had injured the ligaments in his ankle during the offseason.
“I spent a lot of time with him on the sidelines. As amazing as Shamo is, he doesn't shut up,” says Chetty. “Being stuck on the physio bed is depressing. Shamo was never depressed. He would always be cracking jokes, telling us how he can get us out, how we would never score runs off him.”
After six months on the sidelines, Shamsi tore his hamstring in his first match back. He suffered a grade two tear. Instead of going back to the physio bed, Shamsi played with the injury. He ignored the pain, not because he didn't feel it, but because he just wanted to play. This was one of the few times he feared his dream was slipping away. It was one of the few times he did not play with a smile on his face.
As far as Shamsi is concerned, there is no upside in using more energy than you have to. It takes a lot of energy to be angry and maintain that anger.
“I started playing cricket because it was fun,” says Shamsi. “For me, it's like, why must the fun stop now just because I'm playing professionally? Of course, there's a lot of pressure. I mean, you're getting the nation's hopes every time you play. It is your job, you're getting paid for it, and you have to perform to the best of your ability. But, that doesn’t mean I cannot have fun doing the job.”
He brings theatre of magic to the T20 circuit to share that fun and enjoyment of the game with fans.
"In 2019, Shamsi gave me tickets to a World Cup match. His only concern was whether we had enjoyed both the game and the atmosphere," says Simmi Areff, comedian and self-proclaimed number one Shamsi fan. “He has so much time for the fans.”
Three overs, 29 runs, no wickets. Those were Tabraiz Shamsi’s figures when he was pulled from the attack by Albie Morkel. The wicket at the Wanderers was good for batting that day and Shamsi had not gotten a good measure of the pitch. He had not started well.
“I was sad and disappointed in myself after that spell,” says Shamsi. “Albie came to me and said I'm taking you off now but this is not the end of the game for you. You WILL come back and bowl your 10 overs and You WILL get me five wickets to win the game for us.”
The brief pep talk from Morkel went a long way in helping Shamsi maintain a positive outlook. Instead of trudging off to the boundary feeling sorry for himself, which would have affected his fielding, Shamsi felt reassured. He felt that his captain backed him.
Botanist Edward O. Wilson noticed something about the arrowplant; when it grows on dry ground, produces an elephant-ear leaf. In shallow water, it puts up leaves that look like lily pads. If grown in deep water, it develops slender leaves like eelgrass, sort of seaweedy ribbons. The environment awakens something in the plant, freeing it to transform into the shape best suited to its surroundings.
Teams are social situations that are continuously shaped by interpersonal thoughts, feelings and behaviours of athletes and their leaders. Cricketers are no different from the arrowplant, conditions dictate what version of themselves they will be. If the player feels that they have the backing of their captain, teams find themselves in a better position.
When players feel backed, they exceed expectations.
Marlon Samuels was the first captain to back Shamsi in a high-pressure situation. The West Indies star went out on a limb and put his reputation on the line to ensure that Shamsi was picked and played in the Caribbean Premier League.
Samuels had taken a gamble on Shamsi, after watching the young man bowl for the SA Invitational side that was giving the West Indies match practice before a Test series. Shamsi was in the invitational side because he had failed to make the franchise team that was playing that weekend.
In retrospect, Shamsi is grateful that he was a part of that invitational side. He felt differently at the time. One never gets used to being on the fringes. From age-group cricket to that point, Shamsi had always been floating on the fringes, and he never got used to it. It always hurt to be overlooked.
“If I had not been a part of that team, Marlon Samuels would not have seen me, and if he had not seen me, I would probably not have the career that I have. If Samuels had been given out when I had him trapped lbw, he would not have seen me bowling up close,” says Shamsi.
Shamsi had spun his magic the moment he was brought on. He trapped Samuels lbw in his second over. The umpire was unmoved by Shamsi's appeal and did not give Samuels out. For his part, Samuels was sheepish. He tended to the pitch as a distraction. No one walks during a practice match. He needed the time out in the middle, anyway.
In the next 100 or so deliveries that Shamsi bowled, Samuels saw enough to know that Shamsi was a magician. After taking a single off one of Shamsi’s deliveries, Samuels walked up to Shamsi, who was at the top of his run-up for a brief chat.
“Marlon Samuels wanted me to play for his team, the Antigua Hawksbills,” says Shamsi. Unfortunately for Shamsi, the Hawksbills were dissolved days before the draft for the 2015 CPL season. “That was a downer. I started to comfort myself, telling myself that it was okay if no other team picked me.”
Samuels kept his word. He had said he would ‘look after him’, and he did just that. He wanted the world to see this incredible young spinner he had seen in South Africa. When he moved to St. Kitts and Nevis Patriots, Samuels urged the team to sign Shamsi.
Samuels opened Shamsi's eyes to a new world. For the first time in his career, he felt what it was like to not perform with your back against the wall. He liked the freedom to express himself that came with someone believing in him. Shamsi paid Samuels back handsomely, he emerged as one of the top wicket-takers in that edition.
Shamsi’s CPL performance earned him an IPL call-up.
“Here I was, a kid that never felt comfortable in South Africa, never felt he was good enough or told that he was good enough. Here I was in the IPL bowling to Dhoni, the best finisher in the world, all because Samuels had backed me,” says Shamsi.
As he stood at the top of his mark, about to bowl to MS Dhoni, whom he was keeping relatively quiet, Shamsi realised that he was actually good enough to play anywhere in the world, against any batter.
In later years, Shamsi experienced that kind of backing with Faf du Plessis during their time with the Proteas and when they were together at the Paarl Rocks.
“Faf showed me over and over again that he believed that I'm a gun player and can win games and trophies for him. That helped me with my bowling, knowing that he backed me,” says Shamsi. “It was just because he gave me opportunities, but when he benched me, he explained the situation in a way that made me see his thinking and appreciate it.”
When Morkel had the talk with Shamsi, he meant every word. Morkel is not one for lip service, he truly believed that Shamsi could turn the game around, but he also knew that keeping Shamsi on would have destroyed the youngster. He was still inexperienced.
“It was important for him to feel backed. I certainly let him now that he was my man,” says Morkel. “As Shamsi developed, I planned my attack around him and made him my go-to man.”
True to his word, Morkel did bring Shamsi back into the attack. Also true to Morkel’s prophecy, Shamsi bagged a five-wicket haul (8.3 overs, 74 runs, five wickets) to help the Titans secure victory.
It took Tabraiz Shamsi a few months to learn his favourite magic trick. It's a card trick. It was months of simply mastering the technique, and learning to execute the trick with finesse, and without unnecessary finger movement or extra unnecessary motion.
“For months, I spent a lot of hours in front of the mirror going over the trick again and again and again,” says Shamsi.
Shamsi brings the same focus and dedication to his cricket. That is why he has a camera, a Canon EOS 250D, with him during training sessions. The camera is his faithful companion. He records every session and goes over the clips, nitpicking mistakes, just as he would do if he was trying to perfect a sleight of hand trick.
In a way, the principles are the same, his body needs to give away as little information as possible when he bowls his variations.
“I am a visual guy,” says Shamsi. “The camera is there for me to be able to sit down and see what the coaches and analysts will be speaking about when they tell me what I need to improve on. It’s one thing to hear them say what I need to do. My brain just processes the information better when I watch it.”
That’s why he had the camera around when he worked on his batting with Mandla Mashimbyi, his Titans coach, and Justin Ontong, the Proteas fielding coach. Shamsi has been doing a lot of work on his batting.
The idea is not to try and turn Shamsi into a batting allrounder. Shamsi accepts his limitations in that regard. Nor is the plan to make Shamsi a number 11 who can stick around. That is not helpful in limited-overs cricket, especially in the T20s. Shamsi wants to expand his range of shots to become a number 11 that can hit a couple of boundaries.
“I will never be the guy that is needed to score a 50 or face 30 balls. I am a number 11, in T20 I will face, maybe, a maximum of 10 deliveries,” says Shamsi. “The work that I do with my batting is so that I can contribute as much as I can in that space of time.”
It is not all the time that Shamsi has access to video footage. When he does not have access to video footage, Shamsi does his best to translate what the coaches and analysts say to him into a ‘language’ that he understands better. Shamsi appreciates that two people can say the same words but mean different things.
“During my time with the Proteas, we used to have strategy meetings where I always provided players with detailed information on the opposition. Everyone received papers, mini-files, to study later,” says Prasanna.
Invariably, Shamsi would show up in Prasanna’s room with a pen and notebook around midnight. Prasanna does not remember a time when they met to discuss cricket when Shamsi did not bring a pen and notepad. Shamsi had one when they had their first meeting, initiated by Imran Tahir, and he always had one in all meetings they held.
“He would always say that he carried the pen and notepad around because he needed to take down the information in his own language, in a way he understands,” says Prasanna.
Shamsi preferred to have the talks around midnight because he wanted that information to be the last thing on his mind before going to bed. It was also the first thing on his mind when he woke up. He obsesses over details.
“On the bus the next day, you would see Shamsi on his mobile. Many would think he was watching videos. Instead, he would be going through the information he had taken down,” Prasanna continues.
Shamsi prepares as if it’s his last match, practices like a player fighting for his position on the team, and plays every match as if he has something to prove. His determination for improvement matches his enthusiasm for other people. Halfway is for other people.
“Shamsi’s performances on the field are not by chance. He has an incredibly high work ethic and he wants to develop as a cricketer all the time. He is not scared to ask questions and is willing to learn out of mistakes and tough times,” says Albie Morkel.
“Before practice, he would be there, in the nets with cones, working on his bowling,” says Chetty. “After practice, he would be there sticking cones down as everyone was dispersing. People would abuse him, ‘Why are you practising so much?’”
Bowling wrist spin, or any sort of spin, is suited 'for a personality obsessed with the chase and inclined towards the pursuit of perfection.' As Ben Jones and Nathan Leamon wrote in Hitting Against The Spin.
That’s why Shamsi has the camera, it picks up even the most minute details, which helps him in his pursuit of perfection. Little details are important.
Shamsi stands at the top of his mark in the indoor training centre, ready to deliver his first ball. The work has begun.
Thank you for reading. I am entirely freelance and some very nice people help me to continue producing more content by donating a little here and there. Some do so by supporting my work on Patreon.
Others prefer to leave tips:
Others also support sharing posts that they enjoy. You can do all three.