Domestic cricket here in South Africa is currently dominated by the Ram Slam T20 Challenge. For many reasons, it's an interesting tournament, not least of which is the fact that South African cricket has never quite wrapped its head around the demands of the format. Gary Kirsten, the coach then, came back from the World T20 in Sri Lanka three years ago muttering about "dark collective mists" when the South Africans failed to make it past the Super Eights. We are - in T20 terms at least - still in the philosophical fog.
There are suggestions, however, that the view might be clearing. Last Friday night at Newlands, two of the top three teams in the competition, the home-based Cobras and the up-country Titans, faced off, with Titans sneaking home by nine runs to go to the top. Representing the respective franchises were two players who could yet have profound roles to play in the next World T20 in India in March and April - Cobras' Richard Levi and Titans' Tabraiz Shamsi. Levi - most of us already know about him - is a blacksmith right-hander comfortable against pace and iffy against spin. Kirsten took him to Sri Lanka three years ago, where he blotted his copybook slightly by reverse-sweeping Saeed Ajmal and getting bowled. As a career move it had distinct disadvantages, although there have recently been some indications that all could be forgiven. Levi's time in the wilderness might be coming to an end.
If Levi is all grim destruction, Shamsi is all cocksure effervescence. He's a chinaman and googly bowler with almost the best economy rate in the competition, and with his variations and attitude he has the priceless ability to make even calm batsmen look flustered. He didn't take a wicket at Newlands on Friday night, his four overs going for 17, but he bamboozled poor Andrew Puttick so badly that it was almost laughable. In the final of last season's 50-over competition in February, Shamsi trapped Levi leg before to halt Cobras as they were fast disappearing over the horizon. From 180 for 1 with Levi's dismissal for 104, Cobras flapped and splashed to 285 for 8. Shamsi's breakthrough prevented them from posting in excess of 300; with Dean Elgar (100) and Albie Morkel (134 not out) to the fore, Titans won by five wickets, when a couple of weeks prior to that it was moot as to whether they would make the playoffs.
The issue with Shamsi is largely one of trust, and herein lies the rub as far as South Africa's approach to T20 matters is concerned. Sport here is largely wired to avoid defeat rather than to risk exposure in chasing victory. Chinamen and googly bowlers are high risk, in that they bowl full tosses and long hops, yet they also bowl magical deliveries conjured from nowhere. For Shamsi to even play in last season's 50-over final was a challenge to Titans' very fundamentals. Before the final, he wasn't picked for the matches against Lions and Warriors. Now his career is on the cusp of something truly special, and those around him need to keep the faith.
His growing confidence has something to do with Marlon Samuels, who played against Titans when West Indies toured South Africa last summer. Samuels took his positive impression to Eric Simons, coach of St Kitts and Nevis Patriots in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL), and the franchise was brave enough to take a punt. Their faith was handsomely rewarded, with Shamsi finishing as one of the most respected bowlers in the competition. More than that, Simons said he was "engaging", with a good attitude and willingness to learn. "I think South African cricket has struggled to embrace the T20 format," says Simons. "Traditionally, spinners might be brought on once pressure has been created. Someone like Tabraiz has the control to create that pressure."
Shamsi is not the only local spinner enjoying a snappy summer. The Lions duo of Aaron Phangiso and Eddie Leie have taken 20 Ram Slam wickets between them, Phangiso at an economy rate a notch above Shamsi's. Cobras left-arm spinner George Linde has caught the eye, and Keshav Maharaj and Prenelan Subrayen have both bowled well at times for Dolphins. Subrayen has taken four wickets in an innings twice but has been suspended from the Dolphins setup for remedial work on his action. He's a big-spinning offspinner but it's not the first time that he has been called. Like Shamsi, his career is at the crossroads, although you rather feel that the chinaman bowler is heading in the opposite direction.
Titans vs Cape Cobras
South African Domestic Season
Ram Slam T20 Challenge
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg