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What will it take to pull off HS sports this fall in N.J.?

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It’s mid-August and normally, high school football teams would be gearing up for their first scrimmages with an eye on their first games, just ahead of Labor Day.

But this is not a normal year – and many school districts across the state are still working on finalizing their plans just to get their students back to some semblance of in-person instruction in September amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The start of the fall season has been pushed back to the first week in October, yet when considering the logistics of executing any high school sports season, it begs the question: What will it take to pull off H.S. sports in New Jersey this fall?

Officials agree – it’s going to be a challenge.

“Let’s put it this way,” said Brian Zychowski, the Superintendent of Schools at North Brunswick. “We’re prepared for it to happen but not too confident the way things have been moving so quickly. One day, Major League Baseball is working and then the next day, they’re canceling games. One day, Rutgers is having football practice and the next day, they have 30 players impacted. They have more resources than individual school districts.”

“We know that it’s going to be a modified schedule if we come back (to school) in September — and that’s a big if.”

Administrators, already charged with the task of bringing kids into schools on at least a part-time basis in September under Gov. Phil Murphy’s orders, have found significant challenges with restarting high school sports, even at a later date than normal.

They include:

  • Are students that aren’t physically in school still eligible to play those days?
  • How can schools transport athletes to away events while maintaining social distancing?
  • Will outbreaks at schools or on teams force athletic programs to shut down?
  • What dangers will come from intra-school competition?
  • Could the pandemic result in a shortage of officiating crews?

“Educationally, we have developed every single protocol, every single contingency plan you could possibly imagine in order to assure that we’re meeting the charge of providing an in-person education program,” Delran superintendent Brian Brotschul said. “On the academic side, operationally, we have our house in order. Operationally, we’re ready to go. When it comes to athletics, I’m less confident, not because of the decisions that are being made in my own district but dealing with some of the variables when you’re bringing in kids of other districts from a competition perspective.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for high school sports in N.J., has been steadfast and proactive in its belief that a fall season, even shortened and limited geographically, is beneficial for athletes in the Garden State after the spring season was canceled in its entirety at the beginning of a pandemic that has claimed nearly 16,000 lives in the state since March.

In a statement on July 30, the NJSIAA said it remained hopeful in its plan, which pushed the start of the fall season back to Oct. 1 and that they were “strongly committed to our plan and to school administrators as they prepare return-to-school strategies.”

But is that still possible?

Two school districts, West Windsor-Plainsboro and Carteret, have already shut down sports and marching band for the fall.

Other districts are pushing forward, with safety in mind.

“Obviously, the health and safety of the student-athletes when you’re talking about athletics, that’s the No. 1 thing,” Rich Carroll, the athletic director at Middletown North and Middletown South, said. “Not spreading the virus to each other, that’s the No. 1 thing that we’ve been dealing with in the summer session. We’ve had the screenings going and the tracking but that’s clearly the No. 1 issue.”

“FOR TWO-THIRDS OF THE KIDS, EVERY DAY IS SATURDAY”

The first question surrounding the return of high school sports in this climate: how will it work when only a small percentage of students are physically in school that day? Students that are learning virtually, either full-time by choice or because their specific cohort is remote on any given day, are still eligible to play that day, administrators said, but getting to school for practice will likely fall on those families.

“We talked about equity and access to all of our programs and that’s a great example of not having equity and access for 100 percent of my kids,” Brotschul said. “Delran is not a huge town. You’re no more than two miles from the high school, no matter where you live. In that sense, we think, ‘Oh, this can be worked out,’ but at the end of the day, there still may be kids — and I don’t know who they are — that would not be able to participate in our program without a ride.”

Some districts, like Washington Township, have kicked the tires on possibly reversing a bus route after school to get kids back to campus for practices and games. But for others, that’s just not possible and there are no other options than to ask parents to work out a way to get their child back to school.

“That’s the only way we can possibly do it,” said Michael Ben-David, Superintendent of Schools for West Morris Regional (overseeing West Morris High School and Mendham High School). “In our case, we don’t own our transportation, we contract out. Most districts, transportations are tiered. It would be virtually impossible to set up a scenario where you can provide transportation to kids who are virtual when you don’t own your own buses and you have to tier with other levels such as middle school and elementary school. I think the easy way to think about it is that for two-thirds of the kids, every day is Saturday.”

If a season does take place, transporting teams to away games will also be problematic, administrators said. Moving a Group 5 football team was a six or seven-bus operation in the past, so what would that look like in 2020?

“Prior to this, transportation was a nightmare,” Carroll said. “Trying to get buses for all of our sports teams was a nightmare before this so I can only imagine right now what it’s going to look like. We’re starting to put our schedules together and one of the biggest fears — obviously fans and things like that — but just getting buses to go to games. Bus companies don’t know how many drivers they have coming back. It’s a major issue.”

To mitigate the issues that come with social distancing on a bus, most districts will be faced with the hard truth of likely traveling without the band or cheerleaders, or limiting the number of players that can make the trip.

“Our South team, on a regular football night, we’ll send seven buses out between the cheerleaders, band and a team,” Carroll said. “With social distancing, there’s no way we can get 14 buses.”

WILL THERE BE A SHORTAGE OF OFFICIALS?

A key, but perhaps overlooked, component to the high school sports world are the officials and referees — many of which are older men and women that could struggle to combat COVID-19 if they choose to work this season.

Pete Mangarella, the Central Jersey Chapter President of the New Jersey Football Officials Association, said there’s no way to tell just yet how many officials will choose to pass on work this season, but did say some officials had already taken that route.

“It’s been a concern of ours going months back, just saying: how is this going to impact us? You have to understand that we have a lot of officials that are in that age category where if they were to come down with this, they would have some adverse effects from it,” Mangarella said. “We have officials with underlying conditions. It’s been a big concern of ours for the last few months. We have a few guys that are not going to take the field. We have a lot of guys that are on the fence that are waiting to see how everything plays out if it’s going to be an Oct. 1 or Oct. 2 start or if it’s going to be later. It’s a wait and see thing right now.”

Officiating while maintaining social distancing could work in sports like soccer, but in others, like football, there’s simply no way to make it happen, Mangarella said.

“Depending on your position in a group … an umpire touches the ball every play,” Mangarella said. “He’s right in the middle of the field, he has players all around him, he’s digging into piles. Even your sideline officials, they have to come up and get in piles and make sure everyone is separated and all that. It’s a concern. A lot of our games are played in warm weather and we’re out there sweating with the players.

“You’re touching your face, wiping yourself down, whistles are exposed, touching the ball on every play, players are bumping into you. You really can’t socially distance too much on a football field when you have 22 players running around out there. There’s a risk.”

School officials are hopeful that the coronavirus pandemic won’t result in an officiating shortage — which had already been threatened in sports like field hockey and girls lacrosse before the pandemic — but it could be another issue that surfaces closer to the season and could impact how many levels of sports teams can sponsor.

“We met with every official group in June and for the most part, they felt like they could service the varsity games,” Carroll said. “The sub-varsity games could become an issue. Some sports, like field hockey, girls lacrosse, they didn’t have enough officials to begin with. We’re trying to schedule things and we’ve even talked about just going to one site on Saturdays and having three sets of teams coming in at different times so it’s just one official group.”

The cancellation of collegiate sports on a local level could also add depth to the officiating pool for high school games should a season take place. The Big Ten canceling its fall sports season Tuesday could add to that pool.

“My hope is that the referees feel secure enough but much like the students that choose to stay remote, much like the families that choose not to play sports during this situation, I assume it’s going to happen,” Washington Township athletic director Kevin Murphy said. “We’ve heard that some officials are choosing not to because of underlying health issues or age, that they’ve chosen it’s best not to. That’s totally understandable.

“But we’d hope that because a lot of colleges aren’t going to be playing, that we would benefit from that and maybe some of those officials would be available to jump in if they want to work a football game or soccer game. A lot of times in New Jersey, we’re very fortunate that we have a strong colony of officials, and those officials end up working the junior college, Division 2 or Division 3 games. There are so many schools in our area at the collegiate level so I’m hoping that we’ll be able to retain most of our top officials to work our games.”

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN AN OUTBREAK OCCURS?

It’s not a question of if, but when the first team is affected with a COVID case.

What happens next? Are sports shut down for good and students sent home from school permanently?

The answer to that is tricky — and it depends on how it happens, when it happens and where it happens.

“I think the answer depends on the type of system you’ve set up,” Ben-David, the West Morris and Mendham superintendent, said. “I’d like to think that we’ve established a durable, safe system for our students and our teachers and we’re capable of surviving a handful of COVID cases. The way we’ve set it up, pursuant to the reopening plan, is to make sure we have six feet of distance, the kids have masks, they’re not in close proximity for extended periods of time. The way we look at it is we believe we can survive in that model for as long as possible.

“If you don’t believe that, then what are we doing setting up models that we believe are durable if you’re just going to shut it down the moment there’s a COVID case.”

The complexities to that scenario are layered and plentiful, however.

“Our football team has four quarterbacks that work together every day,” Carroll said. “What if one kid comes down with it and the other three have to quarantine for 14 days. We don’t have a quarterback for 14 days? Once you’re together, you’re not keeping those pods (from the NJSIAA summer session) when you’re playing together. So I can see situations where you shut down a team, yes.”

An outbreak that happens over the summer or during the preseason is one thing. But once the season begins — and possible exposure extends to teams that square off in competition — tracing that contact becomes exponentially more difficult.

“And in that scenario, I believe what would happen is our kids would self quarantine for 14 days and monitor their symptoms if there was a COVID-positive interaction from another team,” Brotschul said. “That would be devastating. That would just add fuel to the fire with people asking why you would even open your sports programs to begin with.”

Positive cases, especially with kids reentering schools after months of virtual and remote learning, seems inevitable. Sports, both in high school and outside of it, brings dozens of kids together at a time and could be a vehicle for a communicable disease like COVID-19.

“You see how kids are connected through sports,” Zychowski said.”There are contacts, you know, maybe these kids worked together or were in the same cohort for travel teams and study groups or whatever it may be. It spreads quickly. We’re not isolating our towns now and in fact, our world is more connected than ever.”

THE RAMIFICATIONS OF ANOTHER LOST SEASON

When the hammer came down on the spring season that never was on May 4, the high school sports world quickly shifted its attention to the fall.

But as college sports conferences across the country continue postpone or cancel their fall seasons, it has us wondering:

Could New Jersey lose back-to-back high school sports seasons, too?

“I think that our history has been a beneficial experience for us, regarding how things transpired in the spring,” Brotschul said. “There isn’t an educator in the state that doesn’t want the best thing for kids all the time. I think you’re seeing that. There are a lot of people, myself included, that want to see kids have great experiences. Whether you like it or not, there’s an asterisk on the 2019-20 school year and there’s going to be asterisks on the 2020-21 school year. That’s really a killer.”

Even for administrators, the decision to keep kids out of school hasn’t been easy.

“I think people realize now that we want children here,” Zychowski said. “Our administration wants children here. They want the activities. That’s what we plan for, that’s what we prepare for. It breaks our heart to see kids be deprived, there’s no doubt. But again, it’s like a snow day when it starts snowing and we have a big assembly planned. You can’t go to that assembly and have kids come in and worry about their safety. We’re in a quandary: we want to do everything for our kids but we can’t go to the next step without making sure every child and every family is safe … and our staff. It’s a lot of moving pieces but it begins with safety and security and it’s all about our students and staff.”

As athletes turn to administrators and other leaders for answers, the reality is that right now, they don’t exist.

“As somebody that’s a scientist and understands the scientific method, I’m kind of empathetic to the fact that we’re making the best decisions that we possibly can in the moments that we’re making them with the information at hand,” said Stephen Gonzalez, assistant athletic director at Dartmouth College for leadership and mental performance. “When you’re in a leadership position, you can be wrong and human. I think this is a really interesting time too for a lot of coaches and parents because they’re used to always having the answers and a lot of them won’t.”

How crushing would back-to-back lost high school seasons be — especially with plenty of questions and concerns about winter sports and moving inside?

“I wouldn’t look at them in concert,” Ben-David said. “All seasons are important for the kids. At the same time, this is a health crisis. Obviously if the Ivy League and a whole host of other leagues can’t figure out how to do this, certainly there are obvious challenges to pulling this off at the high school level. We’re hopeful that we can do it. I don’t think there’s any more pressure because it comes on the heels of the spring.

“I think it’s just something we want to make sure we do and we’re consistent with whatever the health guidelines are and we do it in the most responsible manner. If we can’t do that then we can’t do it.”

Brian Deakyne may be reached at bdeakyne@njadvancemedia.com.

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Fashion

Fashion Briefing: Fashion’s emerging founder-investors are mega-influencers – Glossy

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Fashion Briefing: Fashion’s emerging founder-investors are mega-influencers – Glossy

Fashion’s OG Instagrammers are building empires and, at the same time, growing their influence beyond the industry.

After being schooled for years on the workings of the fashion industry, mega-influencers including Danielle Bernstein (2.7 million Instagram followers) and Rocky Barnes (2.5 million Instagram followers) are graduating to careers less reliant on brands. To take it to the next level, they’re leveraging their prowess and communities, driving deals with effective business partners, and evolving their focus, based on the industry’s direction and their own passions. The emerging results, for both Bernstein and Barnes, are personally-backed brands and investment portfolios set to expand based on early successes.

“The plan is to grow, in a big way,” said Bernstein. “I’m a serial entrepreneur, so I’ll always want to introduce new businesses and categories to my brand. And I’m angel investing and joining the board of advisors for so many companies. That’s the future of the creator economy: harnessing and creating community around your existing followers and then figuring out how to monetize that.”

In 2019, upon inking a licensing deal with New York-based clothing company Onia, Bernstein launched the Shop We Wore What e-commerce site, populated with her expanding We Wore What fashion collection. The collection has been at the center of much recent controversy, due to allegedly including copycat designs. According to Bernstein, she turns to vintage pieces, editorials and travel for inspiration. Bernstein’s also become an investor and advisor for hair supplement company Wellbel and CBD brand Highline Wellness. In May, she became active on Patreon, offering exclusive video content to paying members of her community.

In addition, Bernstein heads up We Gave What, a charitable arm of her company. In 2019, she launched tech company Moe Assist with a project management tool for influencers, though its social accounts have been inactive for two-plus months. When asked for comment, a spokesperson said Moe Assist is in a new fundraising stage and “should have news to share shortly.”

Barnes, meanwhile, partnered with Reunited Clothing to come out with her apparel company, The Bright Side, in December. And she recently became a first-time investor-advisor, for 6-month-old SMS shopping platform Qatch. She announced the partnership in an Instagram post on Monday.

“I feel like a grown-up,” she told me, before confirming that she’s interested in investing in more companies. “Diversifying my business has been a really big [focus] for me. I interact with so many different brands and companies on a daily basis. Using my market knowledge in ways that can help other people is fulfilling and exciting for me. And I especially love when I can be involved with a company from the beginning.”

Building on their content creator role in fashion is a natural progression, both said. And it plays into many industry shifts: On its way out is fashion’s DTC era, largely fueled by Harvard Business School and Wharton graduates using a plug-and-play, marketing-heavy business model to launch brands. More consumers are prioritizing quality, differentiated products, making industry experience and style expertise greater virtues among insiders. At the same time, consumers are increasingly taking shopping cues from relatable, platform-native celebrities, moving on from authoritative editors and more closed-off celebrities.

The school of collaborations
The collaborator-to-founder shift isn’t the newest thing. Other longtime influencers that have made the pivot include Arielle Charnas, with Something Navy; Aimee Song, with Song of Style; Rumi Neely, with Are You Am I; the list goes on. Most often, the names behind these brands don’t have formal design and business training — for her part, Bernstein said she “went to FIT for two years, but didn’t study design and production.” But, for years, they’ve worked hand-in-hand with companies to bring their visions to life. And along the way, they’ve come to know what resonates best with their vast communities, from marketing to merchandising to product.

“My most successful collaborations have led to the largest share of my business,” said Bernstein.

Bernstein’s partnership with Onia came out of her swimwear collaboration with its Onia brand, in May 2019. On the collab’s launch day, it drove $2 million in sales, and an included style was the brand’s best-selling swimsuit of the summer. Also in 2019, Bernstein collaborated with Joe’s Jeans on multiple denim collections. The launch day of the first, in March 2019, marked Joe Jeans’ best sales day to date, said Jennifer Hawkins, the brand’s svp of marketing and innovation on a Glossy Podcast in October.

Both served as learning opportunities for Bernstein, who said — as with all of her collaborations — she took full advantage: “It was never just [uploading] a post, and then I went away,” she said. “I always wanted to know how the performance was, in terms of sales, and asked questions: ‘Can you share the analytics?’ ‘What did you see on your end?’ ‘What worked and what didn’t work?’”

She added, “They provided a ton of data, in terms of what I could sell and what the market was missing.”

Likewise, she said, she always followed and shared with partner brands the Instagram Insights and Google Analytics numbers around her corresponding posts. Doing so gave all parties a 360-degree view of a collaboration’s success.

“I’ve learned what works for brands so they get the largest return on their investment,” she said.

For example, she’s learned to lean on her audience’s tastes, versus rely on her own, by allowing them to offer feedback throughout the design process through Instagram. That’s included the selection of fabrics and colors and the fit sessions with models. She only spotlights her favorite styles and what she wears in her own social posts, as a play for authenticity.

According to Bernstein, the collaborations with brands allowing her to play an advisor role — by guiding them on influencer partnerships, marketing and messaging — are always more successful. And they often turn into longer-term investment or advising partnerships.

Bernstein chose to work with Onia on the We Wore What collection based on its prioritization of quality and fit, and ability to keep to affordable retail prices. Currently, prices on the We Wore What site range from $20, for a scrunchie, to $228, for a vegan leather jumpsuit.

Barnes was also ready to go out on her own after finding the right partners. Her Reunited Clothing partnership came after working with the company to create her Express product collaboration, in early 2019. On its first-quarter 2019 earnings call, interim CEO Matthew C. Moullering said the company had seen “a strong start to [the] collection both in-stores and online and [believed] it [was] helping to introduce the brand to a new audience.”

“Having your own brand is terrifying,” Barnes said. “But I like that I’m in control and not so dependent on doing the day-to-day posts promoting other companies.”

But, she added, “One of the huge benefits of working with all these different brands on all these different projects is that we’re constantly getting introduced to new people and seeing who we like working with.”

Barnes’ internal team consists of her husband, who’s the “business brains” of the company, she said, and an assistant.

Like Bernstein, Barnes stressed the need for outside support in the production process: “I love such quirky, crazy things, but I also understand what is realistic for a buyer and a normal girl buying clothes,” she said. “The experience of taking ideas and making them work for a bigger group of people was my learning curve going into a business. It’s important to have a good, diverse team around you who can make your idea something that’s marketable.”

For its part, We Wore What has seen “200x growth in the last year,” as it’s expanded to new categories, Bernstein said. Its ready-to-wear, swimwear, resort wear, and activewear are now sold in “dozens and dozens of retailers around the world,” many of which offer style exclusives; they include Revolve, Bloomingdale’s and Intermix.

“Launching my own brand was putting the proof in the pudding for the power of influencers, when it comes to selling product,” she said.

As with her Joe’s and Onia collaborations, Bernstein sees a rush-to-buy with We Wore What product drops. “The first 10 minutes is when we see the biggest portion of our sales for the entire collection,” she said.

To build buzz, Shop We Wore What’s Instagram account (213,000 followers) features in its Stories the line sheets of the soon-to-launch styles, allowing customers to thoughtfully plan their buy. Doing so has led to lower return rates, Bernstein said. The company’s marketing mix also includes text messages and emails, VIP discounts and user-generated content.

Bernstein has a staff of four people, which include a chief operating officer and a brand coordinator. She said she prioritizes establishing partners with skills and expertise she doesn’t have, so she can learn from them along the way. Ideally, she’d have learned about tech packs, fittings and production logistics in school, but she’s training as she goes.

Moving forward, Bernstein said she plans to extend the size range of We What What styles, which are currently available in sizes XS-XXL, and launch collections with collaborators to sell exclusively on her brand’s DTC site. In addition, she aims to eventually open “experimental” physical retail, starting with pop-ups.

As for her investment-advisor portfolio, she’s currently in talks with companies centered on the concepts of “being able to sell your closet and even rent your closet.”

As for Barnes’ Bright Side, she said it will hit “a bunch of new retailers this year.”

Moving beyond fashion
Up next for Shop We Wore What is a new product category that will hit before the holiday season. Considering her passion for home furnishings and decor — based on her @homeworewhat Instagram account (7,500 followers) and recent press coverage of her new SoHo loft — it’s a safe bet that a home-related category is in the cards.

Likewise, Barnes hinted at a future Bright Side home collection, following her recent, two-year home remodel, which she’s getting set to debut on social media.

Lifestyle brands are the clear goal.

“I would love to be a combination of Rachel Zoe and Martha Stewart, just having my hands in everything and creating this really beautiful lifestyle where you can entertain and be fashionable,” Barnes said. “That’s kind of the dream.”

She added, “Fashion is where my heart has always been, but I’m growing as a person and there’s so much more in my life right now: my family, my home — and I’m getting older, so beauty [and skin care] makes sense now. Sharing all of that with everyone seems so natural; it would be weird if I only did fashion.”

As for future investments, though Quatch fits perfectly into Barnes’ world, with its fashion-tech focus, she said she’s open to investing in any company where she sees opportunity.

What’s more, she has no plans to retire from social media, though she has yet to tackle TikTok.

“People’s need for content has only increased, so I’m posting and creating content more than ever,” Barnes said. “But I’ve learned to become more of a hard-ass with brands. The companies that are willing to work with me and [facilitate] the most like authentic relationship possible are the ones I move forward with.” Reunited can attest.

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South African bowler Tabraiz Shamsi: Amateur magician; professional tweaker-trickster

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Harry Potter fans would know this as the Room of Requirement; muggle cricketers dub it backend operations. Tabraiz Shamsi is an amateur magician. He is also a professional worrier of why some googlies don’t turn as much as he’d want, in cricket.

For the Proteas chinaman bowler, the room of requirement from where he could pull out any game data, used to be the dependable ‘P Dawgg’, former South Africa analyst Prasanna Agoram combining his ken and nous and fast processing laptop. Prasanna enviably would be privy to the trial (and error) runs of Magician Shamsi’s classical Tourniquet coin-drops with the cricket ball. Which was the unglamorous, quirk-in-progress of his left-arm leg spin.

At the stroke of 1 a.m, oftener than not, Shamsi would come looking for what he called ‘shit balls’, in what Prasanna reckoned were otherwise impressive, less-than-run-a-ball bowling spells. This was that one specific delivery that went for a six to sully Shamsi’s 4-0-22-3 T20 match figures. It was the bugs, not the features, that the 29-year-old would cussedly fixate on.

“I’d never point out that he’s missing his length or the back foot was collapsing, at 12.30 in the night. Because Shamo, you see, would then take me to the nets at 1 a.m! He’s capable of calling the manager and telling him at that hour that I have to practice NOW. You had to be careful about what you told him at 1 a.m,” Prasanna laughs, underlining ungrudging admiration for the Proteas spinner’s dedication.

A series of self-recriminations in staccato would follow the ‘Bhai, can you please put on the shit-ball that went for a six.’ “He’d curse himself watching replays: ‘no good, not international class, garbage ball.’ If you try telling him it is ‘well-played’ from Jos Butler and not exactly a poor ball, he’d be hard on himself and say, ‘This is nonsense from Shamo’,” Prasanna recalls of his exacting standards.

For, the South African World No 1 spinner – who lends mystery to the Saffer bowling attack if not entirely upstaging their thunderbolt battery of pacers – knows that all sleights of hand, can come with uncontrollable twists of fate. Both in magic, and cricket.

A young boy of 15 at Paarl who tried to bowl quick like Wasim Akram and Chaminda Vaas, had wound up as a left arm leg spin all-sorts, after years of compulsive fine-tuning. And taken failures and omissions into his run-up’s five-strides.

***
Born in Johannesburg, Shamsi wanted to be a super quick in the land of bolting pacers. His progress though didn’t follow the regular route of being identified early for First teams at schools and playing age-groups. Also, he was told he wasn’t quick enough.

Speaking to the podcast ‘Pavilion conversations with C.S’ recently, Shamsi recalls his earliest break at age 15, bowling alone in the school nets, with the cricket coach’s office nearby. The coach would stop by and ask him what he was upto. “I said, ‘Sir, the U15 trials are coming up. I want to make the Paarl team wanna progress’. He told me – you are not gonna make it. But even there I thought he realised the type of character I am. That was just his way to push me even harder. He said ‘Don’t waste your time practicing coz you won’t get selected. And i was even more driven,” he told the host Mr. Chiwanza.

Shamsi would end up with most wickets that tournament, make the B team (“Still not A”), followed by U17 and U19s for the local side. “I didn’t get selected for SA U19s or invited to camps. My past was little different. In fact I got my opportunity at semi-pro cricket because one player got selected for U19s and went to the World Cup. A spot opened up because of him. I just knew that was my chance I had to make it work. And fortunately I performed. When he came back from the World Cup, he couldn’t get into the team,” Shamsi recalled.

It was around 2015-6 after he had zeroed in on Chinaman as his chosen bag of assorted tricks in franchise, provincial cricket, that he first sought out Prasanna, while closely following senior leggie and his ‘bruv’ Imran Tahir. Prasanna promised to compile a list of outstanding T20 spinners of that year for comparison, when Shamsi asked him: ‘Why just T20? I want to play all formats.’

Prasanna promised to revert after two days on Friday, and on Monday, he had a message from the hotel lobby at 10.30 am that Shamsi was waiting. “Normally, cricketers will turn up at 11.30, if the analyst time is 10.30. This guy made me abandon my breakfast and was ready with a list of questions. I’d prepared a presentation earlier on bowlers like Warne, Ajmal and Herath and how they bowled on unhelpful tracks, what lengths to bowl at what stage, and offered to email it to him. He tells me: “No. I’ll write it down in my own words. I don’t want shortcuts.”

Shamsi would sit and plan for every batsman – his notes diary in tow, even on matchdays when he wasn’t in Playing XI. And once he would spill the beans on why brainwaves struck him at 1 a.m – his preferred time to brainstorm with the analyst. “He once told me he eats my brain at that hour, so that he gets dreams of how to get a Kohli or Sharma out, so he can wake up next day he can execute the training plans.”

Once he came angsty about his googlies not spinning as much as Kuldeep Yadav or Brad Hogg. “When he said it’s not spinning, I told him Shamo’ you didn’t bowl any googly. That’s it. He hit the nets and bowled 1000 googlies non-stop and then said, he’s now hitting the groove.”

But nothing had prepared Prasanna for Shamsi’s mic-drop in the pink ball Test against Australia where the Chinaman was fancied as it’s tougher to spot the wrist in the Adelaidian twilight. Shamsi was instructed to block for 20 balls and support Faf as Proteas were hanging on at 210-9. Shamsi would announce he would score a 50 – against Pat Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc. Finally he was unbeaten on 18. “He came back and blustered ‘If someone had suported me, I’d have hit that 50’.”

***

This constant state of ‘upbeat’ – talking up his own abilities to score a 50 coming at No 11 against Cummins & Starc – might well be the sort of swag and sizzle that the staid South African teams need at ICC tournaments. For a large part of the last 30 years, the Proteas have entered tournaments with burdensome tags of ‘talented’ and ‘favourites’ and come up short. The tasteless mocking glee of choke-jokes has run its course, and being light-weights might well prove liberating.

For all their botched run chases in 50 overs, South Africa can stake claim to the historic highest run-rally to 438. And the innings-interval remark of Jacques Kallis, the most expensive bowler in Australia’s 434, who had quipped “Guys, I think we’ve done a good job. They’re 15 runs short.”

Shamsi likes his boisterous one-liners too. And his showboating and noisy over-the-top pantomime aggression.

After starring in a T20 win against Ireland earlier, he would tell South African journalist Telford Vice, “In my young age, I started as a seamer but was told I’m not quick enough to be a fast bowler so became a spinner. Grew up watching Andre Nel, Dayle Steyn, Allan Donald, that’s where aggression comes from.”

He knows it’s a double-edged sword and a bowler can be packed off, but it can disrupt batters too. “Whatever it takes to win. I’m in charge of making our presence felt on the ground and ensure the team never backs down from opponents,” he added.

Shamsi recently responded to Darren Sammy’s tweet on who would win the T20 World: “Come on skipper, you know the answer to this already…. South Africa of course.” Scroll down the thread, and some mocker mangles his grammar: “are you comedy me”. A good laugh was had by all. Pressure punctured.

“He’ll say things like ‘I’ll single-handedly win this,” Prasanna says, “Whether it happens or not, it gives confidence to people close to you – your team.”

***

Shamsi’s made it to the top of rankings, taking 49 wickets from 42 T20Is, at a strike-rate of 14.8 and averaging 6.6. There’s been a bucketful of wickets in franchise cricket and The Hundred. He’s 31 and has bidden his time to make it to the national team, and another 4 years into the Playing XI. The Wicket then, is an ocassion to celebrate, he reckons.

“I’m a human being and not a robot and want to make long-lasting happy memories that will live with me forever long after my career is done and that is the reason behind my celebrations,” he wrote in a social media post once. “My celebrations mean no disrespect to the opponents. They help me enjoy myself, switch on and off during the game to release some pressure, and put some smiles on people’s faces too.”

There’s the “Shoe” that got going in the West Indies, where within seconds of a wicket, he’d shrug his ankle open from the left shoe and pretend to speak on a landline receiver. Then there’s the bus driver-celebration with Carlos Braithwaite and something about a birdie’s chirp. A flying kiss to the wife and a mock punch to a fielder like a streets hip hopper. Though the untold back-stories raise anticipation of what he’ll whip up next.

Prasanna says there can be new hairdos before every game, sometimes “thrice a week”, and that magic tricks and celebrations are practiced as diligently as the googlies and top-spinners. “Not only will he say, ‘Tomorrow I’ll get Ben Stokes out.’ He’ll also ask you to watch the celebration.”

Amongst his most famous on-field triumph-trumpetings after snaring a batter is pulling a wand out of a hankey – a magician’s staple. But never in cricket, where magic’s glossary is slathered on the slow bowlers and their guiles.

T20 commentators love his name, lending it a South American football match caller’s vroom: “Shaaa-mzzziii”. But it’s the celebrations that can befuddle the most trained of raconteurs. When Shamsi got Wihan Lubbe in the Mzansi Super League, the commentator would build up to the expected celebration. “Is the shoe coming off? No. Look at that…it’s magic,” he would chortle. Cricket was momentarily put to the side, before he resumed confused: “That was a legspinner…… Beg your pardon… Offspinner… That did the trick..” Shamsi’s delivery had jagged away from the leftie and the post-celebration left the commentator’s mind in knots.

Appearing on the Dan Nicholl Show in SA, Shamsi had pulled one of those ‘I can guess the card pulled out of the deck after being shuffled’ tricks. It was ace of spades.

Magic had been his fallback option till age 16, he’d say. “So if cricket doesn’t work out… I ll practice magic for 10 years… But naa… It’s gonna work out.. I’ll bamboozle you all,” he would say, charming the audience.

At the start of the magic gig, Shamsi had handed a sealed envelope to the host. “Sealed with Proteas saliva” Nicholl had joked with whispered reverence. The distracting envelope had briefly become the centrepiece, and Shamsi would explain later:
“You satisfied you made me stop shuffling when u wanted me to? Funny thing is…You thought you were in charge of the trick… Telling me when to stop. Even though it’s your show, I’m running this party… I was controlling you and I actually made you stop at a specific point. …And to prove that I had written down something in this envelope before starting the trick..” It read Ace of Spades.

Shamsi’s assortment of Chinaman, is a bit like that: planned spontaneity. Allan Donald in a video while introducing him to RCB few seasons ago, said: “Left arm, tweaks it this way, tweaks it that way, then tweaks it the other way.” Offering attacking options in the middle overs, with his ability to turn ball both ways, and variations of top spinner, the side spinner and googly, makes him effective against both lefties and righties. The constant explosion of activity – before, right after when appealing (he once did a spot of bhangra jumps, then sat down altogether while pleading a decision) and when celebrating, is in fact the sealed envelope distraction.

Yet, bad days are not unfamiliar to Shamsi, and his role can be flexible like the magician’s wand, like in the West Indies, to keep things quiet, contain against the big power hitters. “There’s two ways to skin a cat… Not really fussed about not getting wickets in WI. That was a different role,” he told the media later.

Sometimes the magic is in not believing the flimflam and sleight. Like rankings. “I don’t lose sleep over being No 1. Obviously it’s a nice feeling to be on top. But I’ve said it before and I truly mean it. I don’t even think I’m the best bowler in our team. We have some great bowlers in the unit. Rankings don’t mean anything if a batsman gets hold of you. I don’t even know how those rankings work honestly.”

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Five great Twenty20 World Cup upsets

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