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After a winding journey, Tabraiz Shamsi belongs at the top of the world game

by Cameron Ponsonby 3 minute read

Tabraiz Shamsi is one of the hottest bowlers in T20I world cricket having spent much of the last 18 months ranked as the No.1 bowler in the world. Cameron Ponsonby examines Shamsi’s slow journey and rapid ascent.

Left-arm wrist-spinners are rare breeds. To become one is to have devoted yourself to the hardest craft in cricket – wrist-spin – all with the knowledge that the end result will see you being little more than a glorified off-spinner, turning the ball back into the right-hander with the added seasoning of the occasional drag-down. It is all of the risk for, more often than not, none of the reward. There is a reason that there are so few in the professional game.

But there are exceptions to every rule and South Africa’s Tabraiz Shamsi is one of them. The left-arm leggie is riding an 18-month wave that has seen him ascend to the very top of the international game. In 2021, he was the joint-top wicket-taker in T20I cricket alongside Wanindu Hasaranga and for over a year he sat atop the ICC World Rankings. Both the joker in South Africa’s pack and also the king of the castle.


But, while Shamsi’s ascension over the past year and a half has been rapid, the journey to get there has not. As a child, he dreamed not of being a cricketer, but a magician. During TV interviews he does card tricks, and whilst celebrating wickets, he turns handkerchiefs into walking sticks. Not quite water into wine, although some batters may argue that his googly comes close.

“Entertaining on the field is just my way of taking the pressure off myself and being able to enjoy things,” Shamsi has explained. “I feel like when I am myself, I am able to play my best cricket.”

As late as 2013, a 23-year-old Shamsi was on the outskirts of South African domestic cricket, unable to break in at franchise level. A strong season in 13/14 for Easterns would follow in which he took 47 wickets at an average of 20.02, but it wasn’t until December 2014 when his career would launch forward due to help from an unlikely source: West Indies’ Marlon Samuels.

Shamsi had been picked for an Invitational XI that was playing a warm-up game against West Indies ahead of their Test tour of South Africa. Shamsi had been picked after he had missed out on selection for his franchise side.

“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,” Shamsi told C.S Chiwanza of Stumped!.

Over the course of an innings where Samuels scored a double century, Shamsi impressed him enough that mid-game Samuels told him he wished to sign him for his CPL team. And sure enough, less than a year later, Shamsi was lining up alongside Samuels for St.Kitts and Nevis Patriots.

From that moment, Shamsi’s career has been one of constant progress. He would impress in the CPL, taking 11 wickets at 13.27, before finishing the 2015/16 first-class summer in South Africa as the leading spinner in the competition.

With an international debut now on the horizon, Shamsi would have yet another trick up his sleeve as he was picked up by Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2016 as cover for Samuel Badree.

2016 would also see Shamsi debut in both ODI and Test cricket, but it wouldn’t be until the following year that he would make his bow in T20Is in a fixture against England at Southampton. A venue where five years later he would take his first T20 five-for in international cricket.

However, the main problem for Shamsi by this point wasn’t his own ability but that of others, as until 2019 he found himself stuck behind Imran Tahir in the pecking order.

“I had always been in and out,” Shamsi told ESPNcricinfo. “Obviously Immy [Imran Tahir] was around and he was the man in charge – rightfully so – but I basically feel that my international career started after 2019. Before that, I would play one game, then another one three months later, then another one after two months. You can’t get any rhythm. Now, you play on Wednesday and if you make a mistake, you can try and correct that on Friday”

The numbers support Shamsi’s assessment. In the three years from his debut to the end of 2019, he played 16 games and took 12 wickets. And in the three years since, he has played 39 games and taken 56 wickets in a run that saw him become the No.1 T20I bowler in the world.

Several metrics showcase Shamsi’s dominance. That wickets tally is the best in the world since the start of 2020, and his economy rate in that time is a miserly 6.93 runs per over; Shamsi is that rare bowler who can combine penetration with containment.

In July 2021, after a stunning showing against West Indies – seven wickets in five games, and an economy rate of four runs per over – Shamsi attained an astonishing career-best ratings peak of 821 points, a tally bettered by only four bowlers in cricket history. Then, at the T20 World Cup, he showed he could cut it on the global stage, with eight wickets – the second-most by a South Africa bowler – and an economy rate of 6.36.

That was, on the whole, a positive competition for the Proteas too. Shamsi’s 2-24 in their final group game saw them topple pre-tournament favourites England, finishing level with them and eventual champions Australia on eight points. But, as is so often the case for South Africa at a World Cup, they were on the wrong end of the fine margins, net run rate eliminating them and leaving them with unfinished business in Australia this winter.

Since then, the impressive performances have continued: a share of the series spoils in India, a series win in England, and a clean sweep of Ireland in Bristol, with Shamsi registering a career-best 5-24 in the decider against Jos Buttler’s team. They will arrive at the 2022 T20 World Cup as genuine contenders. And with one of the best wrist-spinners in the world in their line-up, a maiden World Cup triumph might just be a possibility.

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