Tabraiz Shamsi has taken a rather unfamiliar route to international cricket. After making a splash in the CPL and IPL, he broke into South Africa's squad across formats. With wristspin becoming a must-have in limited-overs cricket these days and South Africa preparing for Vision 2019, Shamsi hopes not only to play his maiden World Cup but also win it. And oh, he is arguably the greatest celebrator of wickets around.
Wristspin is in now, but what made you choose it when you began your career?
I actually began my career as a fast bowler. I thought I was a fast bowler, but I really wasn't fast enough (laughs). So, up until I was 14, I bowled left-arm medium pace. Later, when I was in high school, my coaches at the Under-14 level said I wasn't fast enough, and because I used to bowl a bit of spin as well, they suggested I become a spin bowler. One coach suggested I become a left-arm orthodox spinner and the other wanted me to become a left-arm wristspinner. The coach who asked me to bowl left-arm orthodox said it's much easier to control and bowl fingerspin, as opposed to wristspin. 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. Wristspin was tougher to control and I had it in me to work harder to turn into a left-arm wristspinner.
What are your variations as a wristspinner?
In addition to the conventional leggie, wrong'un and the slider, I work at changing my angles in the crease and changing my lines smartly. Those are also variations. Switching pace from slower to quicker is also part of the learning.
You were the top wicket-taker in both domestic limited-overs competitions in South Africa in 2017-18 [Momentum One-Day Cup and Ram Slam T20 Challenge], on pitches that weren't particularly responsive to spin. How do you rate your performance?
It was very pleasing for me, personally. It was nice to see that I did well in conditions that didn't suit my style of bowling. The World Cup is coming up in England next year and the pitches don't really spin much there as well. Being the top wicket-taker [in the domestic competitions] has given me so much confidence. And recently in Dambulla, I felt the pitch was like a Wanderers wicket, but I still got four wickets.
"I always want to fight - that's my personality. I asked myself, why should I take the easier option? I wanted to be that guy who does the hard stuff"
I bowled in the Powerplays in the Ram Slam. The new ball doesn't really spin much, but I alter my lengths depending on whether the batsman stays still or steps out. In the CPL last year, Chris Gayle gave me the ball at the death - something I have never done before - and I was quite successful. And now after bowling upfront in the Ram Slam, I believe I've added another skill to my game.
How do you try to stay ahead of the batsman in the death?
Maybe at the death, other bowlers are trying to contain the batsman as opposed to taking wickets. But I usually think wickets, and and if you take wickets at the death, you won't let the opposition score much either. Batsmen are under pressure to hit sixes and that's when your variations come into play. So I see bowling in the death as a wicket-taking opportunity
In your first IPL match, you were pitted against MS Dhoni. Were you ready for it?
Bowling to Dhoni was one of the defining moments in my life. I was just an uncapped player from South Africa who had joined Royal Challengers Bangalore as a replacement player. On the eve of the match I did not even know whether I would be in the XI. I had not played international cricket in 2016 and suddenly I was up against the greatest finisher the game has seen - in my opinion.
I thought I was bowling well and he could not put me away. Here was a young kid who was bowling to the best finisher and handling the situation well. I didn't feel like I was out of place or out of depth and that gave me a lot of belief.
Your first big break was in the CPL, with St Kitts & Nevis Patriots. How did that come about?
Usually you play international cricket, then make your way into these leagues like CPL and IPL. In my case, I played leagues before I was picked for South Africa.
A West Indies side was touring South Africa and Marlon Samuels was part of it. There was a warm-up match in Benoni in December 2014, and I was called to play for the South African Invitational XI.
I bowled to Samuels, who used to play for St Kitts & Nevis Patriots. The scorecard will tell you that he made a double-hundred, but I was sure I had him plumb in front - when he was on 10, I guess. But he was given not out, which allowed him the time to face me more, and maybe he thought I was a tough prospect to face. Then next year, I was at the CPL.
Had Samuels been out on 10, he might not have had enough time to make that judgement on my bowling. After the game itself, he asked me if I could join his team. That was massive for me, man. It was a gamble from him - nobody knew me. I'm thankful to him for putting his reputation on the line and backing his judgement on me.
Your South Africa A team-mate Rassie van der Dussen, who is now with Patriots in his maiden CPL stint, says the CPL could give him a fresh perspective on cricket and life. Do you agree with him?
I agree with him 200%. You can just free yourself in the Caribbean and it's all about entertaining the people and having fun yourself. There is so much pressure in cricket these days. Every time you walk onto the field, you are scrutinised, and people often forget we are humans and make mistakes as well.
There will be days when you get it wrong. There's never a player without a bad patch, but the CPL is a tournament where you enjoy yourself. For me, when I'm enjoying myself, that's the time I'm bowling at my best.
You have a number of wacky celebrations. What's the story behind them?
Most of us didn't start playing cricket with the aim of becoming a professional. I started playing because as a kid I wanted to have fun. After beginning to like the game, we make an effort to progress, and because of all the pressure, you forget to have fun. Celebrating is my way of having fun.
I play the game because I love it and always want to have fun. No matter who you are, this game will come to an end for you as a player. People spend hard-earned money to come and see me play, so I want to entertain them and give them a little bit more. If I put smiles on some faces with these celebrations, I'll be pleased. Some people take it the wrong way, but my intentions are always good.
Do you rehearse these celebrations? Carlos Brathwaite at the CPL and Virat Kohli and KL Rahul at the IPL played along with you nicely.
Carlos, Rahul and Virat are good friends of mine. Sometimes the guys come up to me in the change room and tell me they want to do the celebrations with me. I say: "Sure, let's do this." Like I said, I want to entertain. Watch this space, maybe a new celebration is coming up in the CPL playoffs this year.
The bus driver didn't go down too well with David Warner in the IPL, and his Australia team-mate Adam Zampa was also critical of your celebration on Twitter. Has stuff like that made you think twice?
No, I will always be myself. I just don't want cricket to be a normal nine-to-five job. If that situation happens again, I will celebrate again.
It's David Warner, man. At the other end there's this little uncapped kid called Shamsi. He's got Warner out for ninety-something, and has not allowed him to get to a hundred. I think it's a big enough reason to do the celebration.
And the morning of the match - during breakfast - Virat said he wanted to do the bus driver during the match. I told him if I get a wicket, I will celebrate with him. That's what happened. If it happens again, I will run faster towards the boundary.
"The way the limited-overs game is moving, those days of loopy legbreaks are gone"
Can you run faster than your good mate Imran Tahir?
Ha ha ha, not faster than Immy. I can't beat his celebration.
How has Tahir influenced your career?
Immy has been playing for many, many years and he's been like an elder brother to me. Sometimes people see you as competition - he's a wristspinner and I'm one as well - but he's like an open book. When I need any advice or have a question, I go to Immy. And even though I'm much younger than him, sometimes if he needs help, he calls me on the phone.
A lot of people criticised me back home for pushing the ball through the air and not tossing it up high and slow. It was Immy who told me to stick to my strengths and it has worked for me. The traditional way is always to loop it up - and a lot of coaches wanted me to go slower, and maybe that was one of the reasons why I wasn't picked in teams in my early years. Immy told me, "The higher levels you go, if you toss it up regularly, you will be put away." He said my natural gift was to be quicker and with revs. There's a difference between bowling quicker and bowling quicker with those revs.
I'm glad I didn't listen to the coaches and stuck with Immy. The way the limited-overs game is moving, those days of loopy legbreaks are gone. You have to keep varying the pace.
You played alongside AB de Villiers at Titans and Royal Challengers Bangalore, but you had to bowl to him when he was playing for Barbados Tridents in the CPL. How challenging was that?
Playing with AB is the best thing because you don't have to bowl to the great man. We all know how destructive he can be. He is also very knowledgeable. He has helped me with some game plans at Titans and RCB. To get a second opinion from him - he is one of the best - when I was playing with him helped me plan against him in the CPL.
It's a challenge and I love it. You get smashed all over, but if your mindset is right, you learn from it. After bowling to the best in the world and not getting hit too much, mentally you're a bit stronger against the rest.
How special is winning seven trophies with Titans?
Yes, very special. I have basically found a home at Titans. The path wasn't laid out just like that for me. I had to leave my house at the age of 20 and shift to Durban for more chances. I did not get much game time, lost my contract, moved a level lower. Fighting again and finding a home at Titans is some journey.
Eventually I became a permanent fixture in Titans' first team. Their squad in domestic cricket is one of the best in the world. A lot of people think we keep winning because we have the big players, but they don't really see the hard work we put in at training. We at Titans do smart training. There are a lot of rest days in between and when we train, we go hard. I have played with AB, Albie [Morkel], Lungi [Ngidi], Junior Dala, Aiden Markram and Heinrich Klaasen - all of these guys have gone through the ranks and subsequently made it to the top.
You were left out for the Champions Trophy. With the 2019 World Cup around the corner, what are your goals?
I feel sad that I missed out on the Champions Trophy because I've never been to an ICC event before. My ambition is to put in consistent performances and go to the World Cup and do some damage in England. I don't want to just participate, I want to be somebody who makes a big difference in a big game and win it for South Africa. I firmly believe I will do something special at the World Cup, if I get picked.
How do you assess South Africa's spin depth now?
The spin department in the country looks much better than it has been before at any point. [Shaun] von Berg, and Tahir are legspinners. I bowl left-arm wristspin, Keshav [Maharaj] bowls left-arm orthodox, and there's Senuran Muthusamy with the A team, who also bowls left-arm orthodox.
There's a lot of variety - it's all about utilising them well. Over the years South Africa have always relied on fast bowlers, and maybe we didn't have as many good spinners back then. But now I see a shift with many good spinners coming up.
You and Maharaj were in Bengaluru with performance analyst Prasanna Agoram for a spin camp in the lead-up to the Sri Lanka tour. How helpful was that stint?
The amount of stats and game plans Prasanna can give for the second-team players in South Africa, in addition to the senior side, is exceptional. Especially in T20s, these stats and match-ups are important. I sit down with Prasanna the evening before T20s and analyse the scoring options of batsmen and work out how we can contain them.
"We South African spinners get criticised for not doing well in the subcontinent. But when their spinners come to South Africa, they don't do as well as our spinners"
CSA had this spin camp in Bengaluru earlier this year and Prasanna suggested we could spend more time here, preparing for Sri Lanka. We bowled long spells at training and also worked on our batting.
If the conditions in Sri Lanka assist spin, it does not mean spinners can take all 20 wickets. We South African spinners get criticised for not doing well in the subcontinent. But when their spinners come to South Africa, they don't do as well as our spinners. We are used to bowling on wickets that spin less, and it was about putting in an extra sacrifice at the camp with Keshav and Prasanna.
In the SSC Test, Theunis de Bruyn kept sweeping Ranagana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Akila Dananjaya in the fourth innings and threw them off their lengths. How would you react against a sweep-happy batsman?
I don't mind getting swept. I look to get wickets. When the ball bounces and turns extra, you have the chance of finding the top edge. I don't mind a batsman sweeping me for five fours in a row because I believe I can attack the stumps and get him with my variations off the sixth ball. I don't get flustered by the sweep, I enjoy it.
You took four wickets in the Galle Test but had to return home following the death of your father. What made you rejoin the squad in Sri Lanka?
For me, it was personal tragedy and it was difficult. There was no pressure from the team management, but I wanted to make myself available. I just felt that I needed to be back and do the job for my country. So I just spent one day at home and returned the next day.
What were your gains from the Sri Lanka tour?
I played the Galle Test - my second, after two years. I was happy with the way I went. I also did well in the one-day and T20I series, which made me believe that I had progressed as a player. I won my first Man-of-the-Match award in Dambulla. But that series is gone now and I need to start again from zero and go to hundred.
Do you see yourself being successful in the longest format?
I definitely want to play Test cricket. Things happen a lot slower in Tests, and you need to have the mindset to be a bit defensive and adjust from limited-overs cricket, where the action is quick. Keshav is the No. 1 spinner in Tests now and he did an exceptional job in Sri Lanka. I know I have to wait for my turn. But whenever I'm called up, I'll ensure I'm ready for it.