Tabraiz Shamsi’s magical celebration after dismissing Wihan Lubbe in the Mzansi Super League recently trended around the world.
After the hard-hitting Lubbe skied him to cover, the left arm, wrist-spinning Shamsi turned to celebrate in style. Instead of the obligatory shoe-phone celebration, he pulled out a handkerchief that swiftly turned into a stick.
“It is a bit of fun and entertainment. But if there is no magic with the ball, then there can’t be any magic celebrations,” Shamsi pointed out.
Of all the mysteries of the game of cricket, wrist spin has always been the most intriguing. The arc of the perfectly spun ball as it loops, then dips and rips past a would-be stroke is a vision that never gets dull.
From schoolboy cricket to the greatest cathedrals of the sport, the sight of a mystery spinner strolling up to the crease guarantees a change of gear in proceedings. What are they going to conjure up for us today?
There truly is a kind of magic that comes with the really good ones, and it is no coincidence that South Africa’s latest star is as fascinated with spinning a ball as he has been with magic tricks since childhood.
“I’ve always been interested in magic and had a lot of fun with it. Growing up, I was always trying to learn, along with the cricket,” Johannesburg-born Shamsi said in the build-up to the Mzansi Super League final his Paarl Rocks will play against Tshwane Spartans on Monday 16 December.
“Right up until the age of 15, when cricket took over. That’s when I was focused on trying to make representative teams and make my way as a cricketer.”
Along the way, the fun element of cricket faded for him, Shamsi recalled. It became a job, and the obsession with making provincial and franchise teams meant there was little time to enjoy and appreciate the magic of the journey.
Wowing the crowd
He is loathe to be all show pony and no workhorse, however. So he works hard on his craft, twirling his left ring finger into a sandpaper-like monument to hard yards.
Shamsi’s endeavours in the nets allow him to express himself when rewards come in the form of wickets. “We all know that we are struggling with crowds, and I feel people need value-added stuff. I just think it’s important to try and bring the crowd into it, and the celebrations are just a bit of fun. It does add a bit of pressure, though, because people are now asking what I will do next!”
It’s not just for the spectators, though. He thrives in a fun environment. “I want to have fun while doing my job. I don’t want to feel caged, so interacting with the crowd like that is great for me, too. It breaks up the pressure nicely.”
His first port of call is wickets, though, and 14 of them in nine league matches have helped propel the Paarl Rocks to a home final.
“I think the people of Paarl deserve it. They don’t get a lot in terms of fixtures and events coming to this part of the world. So the way they have embraced us has been exceptional,” he said. “I must commend Boland Cricket as well, because they’ve taken us to schools and malls, and really created a sense of community.”
The Paarl venue has seen the most consistent crowds and the atmosphere the organisers created made the stadium deserving of the finale.
“It would be great to finish off the season for them in style, because they have been a big part of our success this season.”
The heartbeat of the Rocks
Much of what the Paarl Rocks have done this season has been down to Shamsi’s influence. Skipper Faf du Plessis has used him as an attacking weapon and the responsibility has seen Shamsi swell in stature.
“I’ve always enjoyed Faf’s captaincy. We have played together in the national team for a few years and he was also my captain in the CPL [Caribbean Premier League]. So he knows what I can do,” he said with a smile.
“He loves a chat and it’s never a one-way street. He values your input and backs your skills. That’s very important for a spinner, especially, to know,” Shamsi said.
It probably helps hugely that Du Plessis was a spinner himself growing up, and he must surely rank as the country’s best contemporary captain of spin. It’s difficult to be a spinner in South Africa. So you need all the encouragement you can get, and a captain on the same wavelength helps immeasurably.
Like many wrist spinners in South African cricket, Shamsi found it difficult to settle into a defined role. And so he went walkabout, trying to find a home that could make sense of his bag of tricks. From the Lions to the Dolphins, to the sleepy hollow that is Pietermaritzburg with the KwaZulu-Natal Inland side, and then slowly spinning his way back into the big time.
“It took me going to the Caribbean Premier League to start having fun again. The South African cricket structure can be quite rigid at times, and that just wasn’t me,” he said.
“When I went to the Caribbean, I realised that they wanted you to be yourself and to express yourself. They didn’t care what you did in the build-up to a match, as long as you performed in the game itself. That’s when the fun came back into my cricket again, and that’s when the celebrations came out.”
In the party atmosphere of the West Indies, Shamsi’s spinning web and his initial bus driver celebrations found an appreciative audience. “That’s when the celebrations started. I enjoy magic, and I enjoyed celebrating by doing crazy things. So, I thought, why not combine the two?”
Party animal, and good cricketer
He soon took his mystery routine to the Indian Premier League (IPL), where even Indian captain Virat Kohli was buying tickets to get on to his wickets bus with the Royal Challengers Bangalore.
But you don’t get to the IPL on good vibes alone. The cricket comes first.
Shamsi’s bowling was maturing and his interactions with skilled practitioners from around the world were hardening his resolve. “I’m not scared of getting hit for boundaries. In fact, I want the batsmen coming at me because that gives me the best chance to get wickets.”
Shamsi also attributes marriage with sharpening his focus and keeping things in perspective, regardless of the result. “I think it has helped my game massively. My wife is a massive support system and is always encouraging me to be a better cricketer and person. Marriage has definitely helped me.”
He’s still not shy of a word in the middle, however, especially when he comes up against his fellow national players. That extra needle brings out the best in him, as it did for his big spinning brother, Imran Tahir.
In many ways, he and Tahir have bowled a googly to spin convention in South Africa. They are combative, confident and completely besotted with the idea of dominating. They have fastbowler personalities, with devilish fingers and the minds of sorcerers.
It’s no wonder that they get along famously and no one is more thrilled than Tahir that Shamsi is performing the way he is.
“He’s a fantastic bowler and taking a lot of wickets. I always wish him the best, unless he is playing against my team,” Tahir said recently during a clash between the Rocks and Tahir’s Nelson Mandela Bay Giants.
Tahir’s exit from one-day international cricket allowed Shamsi to rise higher still, and he relishes the challenge and responsibility. “Immy Bhai was a fantastic mentor and I’ve learnt so much from him. We had a lot of chats at dinner or on the bus, and I’m grateful for everything he has given to me.”
Tahir runs for the hills when he celebrates while Shamsi reaches into his magic hat and springs a surprise. It is no wonder that they are both top of their franchise wicket-taking lists, because their craft is even more compelling than their celebrations.
The mystery in their mitts is difficult to explain and more difficult still to contain. And yet, here they are, like a cricketing Mr Miyagi and Daniel Son, getting their kicks from making a piece of leather bend to their will.
It truly is magic.
“Mr Miyagi” might have moved on, but Shamsi will ensure that the show goes on.
“It’s a different dynamic now he is no longer there, but that is the nature of the game. Greats like Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith retired, and the game carries on. It’s up to the current team now, which will get new players, to create a new identity and build for the future. That is exciting, too.”
But first, before national interests can take centre stage, Shamsi the magician has one final act to perform for the sold-out Paarl stadium.