Tabraiz Shamsi: 'I've always wanted to get the best guy in the opposition out'

The South Africa spinner talks about relishing the chance to go up against England, his prolific 2021, and finding his feet in the national side

Shamsi picked up 36 wickets in T20Is in 2021, the joint most by any bowler in the format in the year  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Shamsi picked up 36 wickets in T20Is in 2021, the joint most by any bowler in the format in the year  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Tabraiz Shamsi has become South Africa's premier white-ball spinner in the last three years and one of the world's most prolific bowlers in T20Is: only Wanindu Hasaranga took as many wickets in the format in 2021. Shamsi speaks about his ambitions for the white-ball series against England, his use of analysis, and his trademark celebrations.
Did you get the chance to spend some time at home after the tour to India?
It's nice to be here in England - the weather's good for a change! We had about ten days at home after the India series. I feel refreshed - about as much as you can, as much as is possible. You always want more time at home, but at least we got something - other guys don't even get that much. The way the calendar has changed nowadays, you finish a series and the same night you're off to the airport. That's what happened for us when we played India. It's quite refreshing to get to a country and have two warm-up games - that's unheard of.
You've played England a few times before and they've come hard at you. Are you looking forward to the challenge?
Just for the record, it's not only against me: they come hard against everyone! I enjoy that because it gives me opportunities to try and pick up more wickets, compared to someone that's trying to be conservative. There'll be some days where you're going to go home sad, but others where you go home very happy. That plays into the way I like to bowl. As a player who believes in himself and a team who believes in themselves, you want to play against the stronger teams; you want to test yourself against a team like England.
England will pick a full-strength batting line-up. What goes through your mind when you see the names on their team sheet before a game?
From a young age, that's something that's always excited me. Whether it was schools cricket or provincial and first-class cricket, I've always wanted to get the best guy out on the opposition team. England is blessed with many good guys, so that's really exciting for me. It's something I'm proud of when I play: it's a great opportunity to be bowling against very good players and having an opportunity to get them out.
"Skill-wise, some guys are slightly better than others, but I don't think the difference is as big as it is mentally. That's what makes great players great: their mental approach to the game "
You took 36 T20I wickets last year, the joint most in the world along with Wanindu Hasaranga. Was it the best year of your international career?
I had always been in and out. Obviously Immy [Imran Tahir] was around and he was the man in charge - rightfully so - but I basically feel that my international career started after 2019. Before that, I would play one game, then another one three months later, then another one after two months. You can't get any rhythm. Now, you play on Wednesday and if you make a mistake, you can try and correct that on Friday. You see what works, what doesn't, and then you play again on Sunday. That's the only way I think a player can improve: if he's backed and he's given enough opportunity. I always believed in my abilities but to be able to get that run to actually show the world, "Okay, cool, you know what, this is what this guy can do" - that was quite satisfying for me.
Left-arm wristspinners are still relatively unusual in the world game. Do you feel like there's still a novelty factor that can work in your favour?
I suppose so, but then again, the game has changed so much. Guys are batting left-handed when they're supposed to be a right-handed batsman, and reverse-whooping fast bowlers. That might previously have been the case when India came through with Kuldeep Yadav, but I think guys have adapted. That's the game: bowlers come up with something and then batsmen innovate. At the end of the day, you have to put the ball in the right area with the right variations, no matter whether you're bowling with the right arm or the left arm. That's the key.
Do you put extra focus on the first spell of a match or a tour with that in mind - knowing that batters won't have faced much left-arm wristspin in the nets?
I don't think you get any freebies in international cricket, especially against the stronger teams. My basics don't change whether I'm playing against the guy for the first time or he's played against me a lot. It's more of your prep as a player that gives you confidence. If he's on the field with you playing international cricket, he's a pretty good player.
When it comes to preparation, how much use do you make of analysis of the opposition?
It's either for you or it's not for you. You get some guys that are mavericks that just want to go out there on feel, but I feel that definitely, for me personally, it gives me an edge in my prep. I am a free-spirited person - you see that with my celebrations and the way I go about life - but if that [analytics] can give you a slight indication of what a batsman might be doing, why not take that opportunity?
You can be a maverick on the field but you can be better if you have prior knowledge - something that can maybe prepare you or make you aware of what the batsman might be trying to do. That's why I dive quite a lot into the analysis. And then I like to prepare according to how I feel I should be bowling against a specific batsman.
What would you be looking at the night before a game when you're speaking with South Africa analyst Rivash Gobind?
It will be footage, stats, wagon wheels - all that stuff is pretty standard in international cricket now. But it's about how you interpret the information. The information can be there and each guy will take whatever works for them. I'm the same: I won't use every piece of information, but I take what I think is relevant for my bowling.
Reece Topley said last week that learning about the mental side of international cricket is just as important, if not more, than skills for white-ball bowlers in 2022. Do you agree?
Hundred percent. When you're playing international cricket, there can't be a 70% difference between my skill versus your skill. We're all good players, that's why we've made it that far. It's more of a mental thing. I know I'm a good bowler, you know you're a good batsman. It's about how we tackle each other mentally and who has more faith in their ability and execution. Skill-wise, we're all on a specific level. Yes, some guys are slightly better than others, but I don't think the difference is as big as it is mentally. That's what makes great players great: their mental approach to the game and their belief in their ability.
"Earlier I would play one game, then another three months later. Now you play on Wednesday and if you make a mistake, you can correct that on Friday. That's the only way a player can improve: if he's backed and he's given enough opportunity"
South Africa won four games out of five at the T20 World Cup last year but couldn't reach the knockout stages. Do you feel like you can get to the semi-finals and beyond in Australia this year?
As a squad we're in a good place. There's always things that you're working on and the World Cup is definitely something that's at the back of every team's mind. Funnily enough, now it's easier for people to see that South Africa may have one of the better bowling attacks in the world. I've been saying that for the past 18 months because I'm part of the team. When I look around and see the guy to my left and the guy to my right, I see the composition of the bowling attack and I see a lot of guys that can take wickets. Every single guy in our attack is capable of taking wickets. I can only speak for the bowling group but I feel like we have all our bases covered.
You've become renowned for your celebrations. Do you have anything specific planned for this tour - and did you see your compatriot Rilee Rossouw's celebration last week?
I did! I feel like I've toned them down quite a lot since I became a dad. My philosophy of my celebrations is that you're playing against the best players in the world and it's become our job to be doing it professionally, so that's my way of enjoying myself. All of us started doing this thing because we enjoyed it, then we got good at it because we were having fun, then we got higher and higher and now it becomes more intense because your performances are being scrutinised. Every move you make is being assessed and you're playing because it's your job.
I don't want to lose that fun factor and celebrating helps to take the pressure off. Once I've taken a wicket, I'm enjoying myself because, flip, I've worked hard to be where I am and I'm well aware that it's not going to last forever - that's just how bodies work. I want to enjoy cricket while I'm playing and make memories that I'll have once I'm done, for my kids, for my family. Just because I'm earning money from the game and my job is dependent on my performances, I don't want to just be all serious or not be myself. I want to have fun.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98