Ranked as the number one bowler in ICC's T20I rankings, Tabraiz Shamsi has established himself as South Africa's premier spin bowler in the white-ball format. With 64 international wickets, Shamsi is fast proving to be a worthy successor to the position left vacant by the retirement of Imran Tahir.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Shamsi spoke about starting his cricket life as a fast-bowler and progressing to become an international spinner, his ambitions to play more Test cricket, his famous wicket-taking celebration, the influence of Imran Tahir on his bowling and South Africa's chances at the upcoming T20 World Cup.
By Saj Sadiq (3rd May, 2021)
PakPassion.net: Did you always want to be a left-arm spinner?
Tabraiz Shamsi: No, I used to be a left-arm fast bowler, or at least I thought I was fast, but in reality, I wasn’t very quick. At High School trials I was told by the coaches that I wasn’t quick enough to be a fast-bowler and that maybe I should try bowling spin, so I took on-board the advice and started bowling spin when I was 14.
PakPassion.net: Your bowling action is a little unorthodox. Is that something you developed yourself or was it an action developed with the coaches you worked with?
Tabraiz Shamsi: It has to do with the fact that I was a seamer before and that’s why my run-up is a little bit longer than most spinners. It’s an action that comes naturally to me and it’s not something that I have worked on. I don’t like to think too technically about my bowling because I feel that it puts too many different thoughts in my head, so I just like to work with whatever comes naturally to me.
PakPassion.net: You didn’t make your international debut until 2016 when you were 26 and 7 years after your First-class debut. Was that due to you being a late developer or the competition for places?
Tabraiz Shamsi: There were other guys ahead of me in international cricket and for me to even get first-team domestic cricket was difficult so I was playing mostly second-team cricket and playing the odd game for the first team. I don’t really know why, as it wasn’t anything to do with performances because I was regularly amongst the top bowlers in the country. But there are some things you can’t explain and now looking back I actually feel glad that I had those experiences, because it actually taught me how to fight through situations and learn about going through tough times. I feel that if a player’s journey has been smooth through the age-group levels and everything happens quickly and easily then maybe you don’t know how to fight through a setback and come back from it.
PakPassion.net: Who have been the biggest influences on your career?
Tabraiz Shamsi: Someone who I speak to quite often is Imran Tahir. In fact, just before this interview Imran and I were sending each other messages and speaking about bowling. He was the one keeping me out of the national side, as for the first 3 or 4 years of my international career I was mostly on the bench while Imran was playing, but we developed a very good relationship, and he is like an elder brother to me. Now we are at a stage where it’s not just one-way traffic and he messages me to find out what I think about his bowling. We help each other out because as spin bowlers we can see things about our bowling that others might not be able to spot, and we have that trust between us. In terms of spin-bowlers he has had a big influence on me and my career.
As for coaches, my school coach Cyril Mitchley, the son of the umpire of the same name, backed me and gave me opportunities to flourish. In terms of First-class cricket, Grant Morgan who is currently working for Cricket Scotland, he was the coach when I made my First-class debut and was my coach at the Under-19 level and he gave me my first break. When I wasn’t able to get a chance for the first team, he phoned up the coach at The Titans to say that I was ready to play first-team cricket and needed an opportunity. He had a massive role to play in terms of my career as he was the first coach who really backed me. As a young player you need that sort of support, and he actually had more faith in my ability than I did. Sometimes he would speak with me and I would think what is he speaking about, because I am not as good as he is saying I am.
Later on, I played a couple of seasons under Eric Simons in the Caribbean Premier League and I picked up a few things from him regarding the way he thought about the game and he really backed me and appreciated what I brought to the table.
PakPassion.net: How has South African domestic cricket changed over the 12 years you have been a part of it?
Tabraiz Shamsi: In the last 3 to 4 years I’ve not played a lot of domestic cricket because I have been travelling with the national team. But for me it’s always been great and a good challenge. I feel like we are in a good space at the moment. Our national teams are going through a transition and people who are outside of the cricketing circle might not just understand that if you take out the best 5 or 6 players of any team it will take time for the new guys to come in and find their feet. We are comfortable where we are at because we know that the type of players we have - all we need now is just a little bit of time to play together.
PakPassion.net: You are currently ranked number 1 in the ICC T20I bowling rankings. That is quite some achievement, isn’t it?
Tabraiz Shamsi: It’s not something that I actively looked for. To be honest I just wanted to play regularly for my national team and for the first 3 or 4 years of my international career I just played the occasional game here and there because Imran Tahir was around. In 2019 because it was a World Cup year, I started to get more opportunities in the T20 format because we were playing our regular team in the 50-over matches and playing the back-up players in the T20 format to give us experience and that’s where it started. All I wanted to do was to play, bowl and be the best bowler on the day and that’s how I try and play every single game and slowly I started climbing up the rankings. It wasn’t until we played England before Covid-19 caused havoc when I broke into the top 10 that I realised that the small things I had been working on and doing were actually paying-off.
To be ranked number one isn’t something that I look too deeply into, but it is definitely something that feels nice. Next week I might drop down the rankings so it’s not something that I am too fussed about, but it does feel nice to be classified in that bracket and it’s something that I wanted when I started playing cricket regularly. It was one of my goals to be in the conversation when people spoke about the world’s best current spin-bowlers currently and I wanted to be a part of that group. I’m happy that things have worked out and I just try to win games for my team and do my best on the day.
PakPassion.net: You’ve played in various Twenty20 leagues around the world, but is this an area that you would like to explore further by playing in leagues such as the Pakistan Super League?
Tabraiz Shamsi: Yes definitely. I’ve been fortunate enough to play in the Caribbean Premier League and it was after I went to the CPL and did well that domestic teams in South Africa started to take me seriously and giving me regular game time and then I got picked for the national team after playing CPL and IPL.
I find that it has helped my game quite a lot playing in the CPL, IPL and English County Cricket. People see it as a money thing and say that the players are participating in these tournaments for greed. Personally speaking, of course you do earn a bit of money but what is most important are the things that you learn from the people who are not really in your circle. So, you are hearing different chats from West Indian players or Indian players and you are learning about the different ways people think about the game and train. You pick up the small things like that and I think that sort of exposure has really accelerated my growth as a spin-bowler.
PakPassion.net: You’ve only played 2 Test matches, is that a number that you want to improve upon?
Tabraiz Shamsi: Definitely, that was always the plan. In fact, when I was coming up the ranks I was more of a red-ball bowler. And to be honest, I didn’t give much credence to such terms as red-ball bowler or white-ball bowler as it just happened that when I was younger I got more red ball games at the franchise level so I did well in those and then when I moved franchise and I came to the Titans I couldn’t get a red-ball game as they had a regular spinner and I played more white-ball cricket there.
Hopefully, I can add to the number of Test caps, but that’s the way things have come up and there was a point where Keshav Maharaj and I were both at the Dolphins and he was playing white-ball matches and I was playing the red-ball matches and now we are playing for the national team in the opposite formats. Sometimes it’s what the team needs at that time and what a certain coach thinks of you at that point, and you get boxed-in like that. For me Test cricket hasn’t fallen-off the radar and 2 Test matches in about 5 years is definitely not enough time to be able to show what you can do.
PakPassion.net: How much planning and preparation is needed before bowling to someone like Babar Azam?
Tabraiz Shamsi: Babar Azam is a quality batsman. I didn’t get him out in this series but that isn’t always the end goal and doesn’t necessarily mean that you were unsuccessful. There’s a lot of planning that goes into it and I don’t tend to worry about technical aspects of bowling because I feel that my body will just tell me how to get the ball wherever I want it to go if I have been practising enough. I do like to watch a lot of footage and I do like to plan a lot and to bowl a lot in the nets. I work with the video analysts and sit down and try to work batsmen out and see where most likely you will get success against them and to prevent them scoring runs against you. A lot of the work gets done behind the scenes and that’s something I enjoy.
PakPassion.net: How did you feel about your best players leaving for the IPL half-way through the series against Pakistan?
Tabraiz Shamsi: It is what it is, and you just have to get on with the job. The team that was selected consisted of players who have done well in domestic cricket and they are very good players. It was a good opportunity for us to give more experience to other guys and if you look at our T20 team we are relatively inexperienced including myself. It was a nice challenge because Pakistan is a very strong team and they obviously brought their full-strength team and had three guys at the top of the order who were on fire and I don’t think I have ever been a part of a series where the top opposition batsmen have been in form at the same time and basically performing every single game or have 2 out of the 3 performing in every single game. It was a nice challenge, obviously the results weren’t what we wanted but in terms of experience such series can teach you a lot as well.
PakPassion.net: Were you not tempted like some of your former team-mates to go down the Kolpak route?
Tabraiz Shamsi: No, not really. I always wanted to play for South Africa. I love playing cricket in England and have been fortunate enough to have played for Northamptonshire and Hampshire, but the Kolpak route never really interested me as I still want to play for my country and still want to help my country win a World Cup and climb up the rankings. I have always wanted to test myself against the best batsmen in the world and try to get all the best batsmen of my generation out. Those are the kind of goals that I still have so that’s why Kolpak didn’t interest me at all.
PakPassion.net: How does the thought of AB de Villiers making a comeback to the national team sound?
Tabraiz Shamsi: AB is a world-class player and he walks into any team and that’s how good he is, it doesn’t matter whether it’s England or Australia or South Africa. I don’t know what AB’s situation is, it all depends on how he feels and how the coach feels and the selectors too. But, let’s be honest, a player like that is hard to ignore.
PakPassion.net: You toured Pakistan earlier this year, how was the experience?
Tabraiz Shamsi: Well we were in 3 cities and I saw three different hotels and three different hotel rooms and that’s pretty much it. I would have loved to have seen a lot more of the country but the tour itself was nicely organised. I have always had small aspirations and goals and one of them was to play in the best stadiums in each country, like the MCG, Newlands, Lord’s. For me, Lahore and Karachi also hold that sort of prestige in the world game. Unfortunately, I missed out in a Test match in Karachi due to injury, but it was nice to play in Lahore during the tour.
PakPassion.net: Tell us a bit more about your wicket-taking celebration?
Tabraiz Shamsi: I don’t want to act like a robot in the field. The whole thing behind my celebration is that I started playing cricket because I enjoy playing the great game. Then this thing became a job as I started climbing up the levels and started earning money from it and it became professional. Then you play for your country and it becomes even more serious because you are representing your nation. I just want to enjoy myself. At the end of the day, we are all going to retire at one stage so I know time is limited and my celebration is fine as long as it isn’t disrespectful to batsmen which they never are and it’s just me enjoying myself and having fun on the field and enjoying the fact that I have taken a wicket.
Some people might think taking a wicket is easy, but every single wicket you have to work hard for, so I want to enjoy that and enjoy myself as long as I play cricket and have some memories once I’m done with playing. I just feel that the celebration helps me get rid of a bit of pressure because there is a lot of pressure when you are playing, and it help me just switch-off for a few seconds before I have bowl to the next batsman. The game needs a bit more fun as everyone is trying to be boxed-in and this is just who I am. I like to have fun and I like to make my team-mates laugh and put some happiness and smiles on people’s faces. There are people who don’t like the celebration, but then there are people out there who love it, but you are not going to be able to make everyone happy and I’m comfortable with that.
PakPassion.net: How do you rate South Africa’s chances at this year’s T20 World Cup?
Tabraiz Shamsi: I think our chances are very good. We have an inexperienced team at the international level, but the guys have played a lot of cricket itself. We just need more time to gel and learn about each other’s game a bit more and get settled into our roles, but if all of our players are available then we are no lesser team than any other when you compare the squads.