It took quite a while for people to take Tabraiz Shamsi seriously, but now that he has shot up the rankings table, the narrative is changing, writes Rohit Sankar.
Tabraiz Shamsi’s story is not too different to that of the average South African spinner that made it to the squad, got few opportunities in the XI, and fewer opportunities to actually play a role in the game. Well, almost. A few tiny details differ in the Shamsi tale and that could very well define the next half of his career.
Spinners have had to bide their time in this country of rich fast bowling resources. While Proteas spinners of the past were regularly kept out by quicks, Shamsi was kept out by another spinner – Imran Tahir. He is also blessed with the rare chance of enjoying a new-found love for spin in the country, one which, no doubt, was inspired by Tahir.
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest that Tahir changed the spin culture in the country; an outlier who walked into a den of lions and built a home for himself and for the ones to follow. Shamsi is the first beneficiary of Tahir’s course correction in South Africa’s spin history.
There isn’t a better one to build the spin legacy to greater heights. First up, Shamsi is from the rare breed of left-arm wrist spinners, a trade very few have plied in international cricket. Secondly, Shamsi isn’t Tahir, a naturally gifted freak that any team would welcome. It took time for Shamsi to understand his own game, but he was prepared to fight conventions.
Until 14 years of age, Shamsi was a left-arm medium pacer. He was then told that he wasn’t quick enough to be a fast bowler, and to turn to conventional left-arm orthodox spin, the easier option. In a 2018 interview with ESPNCricinfo, he explained why he chose against that route: “I always want to fight – that’s my personality. So I asked myself, why should I take the easier option? I wanted to be that guy who does the hard stuff. Wrist spin was tougher to control and I had it in me to work harder to turn into a left-arm wrist spinner.”
The unconventional route to international cricket followed. His exploits in the Caribbean Premier League and Indian Premier League earned him a place in the Proteas limited-overs setup, although it still took time for the trust to build.
In the 66 ODIs South Africa played from Shamsi’s debut in 2016 to the end of the 2019 ODI World Cup, the left-arm wrist spinner featured in 17. He had a few more opportunities in the T20I setup, but it took South Africa time to adjust to the post-Tahir period where Shamsi would take over the mantle. Like many, they didn’t quite seem to trust Shamsi.
That narrative has turned around spectacularly in the last two years. Since the end of the 2019 ODI World Cup, Shamsi has played in 25 of the 26 T20Is South Africa have played. He has also featured in 10 of the 12 ODIs.
Shamsi has also risen to No.1 in the ICC T20I bowling rankings in this time, picking up 35 wickets at an average of 17.3 and an economy rate of 6.3. Notably, he ended the five-match T20I series against West Indies, boasting of some of the biggest hitters in the format, with an economy rate of 4.00. His victims? Kieron Pollard, Chris Gayle, Andre Russell, Evin Lewis (twice), Shimron Hetmyer and Nicholas Pooran. Enough said.
A stint in The Hundred and a return to the Indian Premier League is the latest story in Shamsi’s rise to a global T20 spinner. At 31, he still has time to turn into another of those globe-trotting fancy spinners. But it is back at home where he will be needed more, nurturing the foundation of spin culture that was generously laid out for him. So far, Shamsi has hardly put a foot wrong. Out of Tahir’s shadows, the wrist spinner has established himself as world class, adding a unique touch to South Africa’s spin history.