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How to Build the Best Environment and Technology for School at Home – TidBITS

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Wall desk

Like many families, our lives were completely upended last spring by the sudden transition from regular school to “School at Home.” Our three elementary school students hung up their backpacks, stored their lunch boxes, and started attending classes through Zoom, Google Meet, or whatever tool their teachers adopted as our school system struggled to adapt.

Given that we live in the COVID-19 hotspot of Phoenix, Arizona, my wife and I carefully tracked local infection rates over the summer as it became clear that in-person classes were not going to be viable. Our school system eventually offered two options: self-paced online learning, or teacher-led online classes that would more closely replicate the school day. We decided on the latter option since that would allow us to re-enter normal schooling once our area met health and safety requirements.

We spent the summer planning for virtual learning at home, and how to manage working from home as our children simultaneously school at home. As someone who has run multiple online training classes and has worked predominantly at home since 1997, I leveraged my knowledge to help build a good learning environment and technology base to support our children, while my wife, who doesn’t currently have a job, took the lead on organizing the house and handling the day-to-day technical support. School is already up and running here in Phoenix, and here is our advice for making the best out of a challenging situation.

Create a Workspace

Anyone who has worked at home for an extended period quickly learns the importance of having a dedicated space for work. Aside from the organizational advantages of keeping your work tools in a consistent spot, a dedicated space allows you to mentally separate work time from personal or family time. The benefits of this approach apply equally to children in school. They need an area to keep papers and school supplies accessible and, ideally, at least somewhat organized.

Using a shared surface like the kitchen table is far from effective, and even a desk in a child’s room can be counterproductive if you can’t monitor them or they can’t mentally separate school time from personal time. After trying a few different options, these are the ones we think work best:

  • Buy or construct a desk for each child. Inexpensive desks are widely available and can make all the difference. These aren’t going to become family heirlooms, and there’s no need to get fancy with drawers.
  • Use your corners. We crammed small, light desks into corners of different rooms in our house. This separation reduced the noise overlap from simultaneous online classes as we had to spread three “classrooms” around our home. When the weather is nicer (which means not too hot here in Phoenix), one of the desks moves to our back patio.
  • Get creative. For my older daughter, we installed a wall desk in her room. These are basically bookshelves with one larger surface that folds down. It’s great for space, and after class, she can fold it up and hide all the schoolwork for that critical mental separation. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to install.
    Wall desk
  • Plan around your outlets. Ideally, you should place desks near electrical outlets. Since our kids mostly use iPads, I swapped out the outlets in their workspaces with ones with built-in USB-A and USB-C charging ports. We bought each child a dedicated cable that they aren’t allowed to unplug. Trust us, you’ll go through more cables than socks if you don’t keep them locked down.
  • Don’t forget your own workspace. If you work at home, you need your own space, even if you have to spend time helping your children get through their days. One friend has her son work part of the day in her office, then they go off to separate spaces when she doesn’t need to keep such a close eye on things.
  • Put a clock with big numbers on every desk. Kids are used to being directed around the school for different classes. It’s too easy for them to lose track of time and miss a class. A cheap clock with big numbers on every desk is probably one of the best investments you can make.
  • Print out the class calendar and keep it visible. Even if your school provides calendar invites or a digital schedule, we found that posting a printed schedule in each workspace helps both our kids and us keep track of which virtual room they should be in.
  • Buy a desk organizer and twice as many writing instruments as you think you need. Virtual learning doesn’t mean paper goes away, especially if you have elementary-aged children. Cheap organizers are widely available and it’s worth getting one on the larger side to keep all the pens, pencils, and other accouterments off the floor. Science has shown that small black holes orbit children and selectively absorb school supplies at exactly the moment they are needed, so keep spare stock close at hand.

Build a Great Network

Not everyone has the best choices for their Internet connections, especially those of you on a budget, but few things will frustrate your child and their teacher more than a bad network connection. Losing connectivity is incredibly disruptive. We are fortunate to have a fiber connection and a complex, business class home network, but I’ve also been called in to help other friends and family optimize their less robust networks:

  • Get the best Internet connection you can. Most videoconferencing services adapt to lower bandwidth connections, but reduced video resolution, frame skipping, and dropped audio is hard on both the student and the teachers. Such things probably make you crazy too, and most kids lack the patience and understanding of adults.
  • Buy a decent Wi-Fi access point. When a friend or family member calls me to help fix their network, the most common culprit is their reliance on whatever Wi-Fi access point came from their Internet service provider, or the access point they bought 7–10 years ago. Newer technologies aren’t just faster, and many products include capabilities to work with the increasingly crowded wireless spectrum.
  • Consider a Wi-Fi extender or mesh network for better coverage. A Wi-Fi extender works with your existing access point to extend wireless networking coverage. While they aren’t the most efficient option and increase latency, they help significantly if distance or walls degrade your signal. Alternatively, consider stepping up to a mesh networking system like Amazon’s Eero (see “Eero Provides Good Wi-Fi Coverage in a Handsome Package,” 25 June 2016), Linksys’s Velop (see “Velop Provides First-Rate but Expensive Wi-Fi Mesh Networking,” 9 July 2018), or Netgear’s Orbi. Mesh Wi-Fi systems are like advanced extenders that use two or more devices spread across your home for better coverage. Unlike extenders, they often use a dedicated backhaul for traffic and include additional intelligence to optimize connections.
  • Use wired backhaul connections where possible. Newer houses and apartments may have Ethernet cables running to multiple rooms. Many Wi-Fi extenders and mesh networks can use a wired connection for the backhaul between access points, which may dramatically reduce latency and improve connectivity.
  • If all else fails, move closer to the access point for a better signal. ‘Nuff said.
  • Consider creating a guest network for less-secure devices. Many newer home network devices support the idea of a guest network, separate from the main network. You may find yourself having to use older or less secure devices from the school system and placing them on a guest network will keep these devices from being a bridge to attack your personal or work devices.

My home network was already in great shape thanks to using business-class hardware from  Ubiquity and wired access points, plus a 1 Gigabit fiber connection to my ISP. However, I still upgraded my primary firewall/router for better security. Doing so also improved our overall traffic management since we now have at least four simultaneous video chats running for most of the day. I then created a dedicated wireless network, using the same hardware, for school-owned devices to isolate them from our personal devices.

Pick the Right Devices and Peripherals

Our kids have long used their own iPads, but my son’s iPad was older, slower, and couldn’t run all the software he needed very well. Although our school system provides Chromebooks and iPads, we decided to upgrade his iPad and return the school-owned devices for less fortunate families in our district. As with your network, it is critical to provide your child with a stable, functional device.

School-owned devices might not be the best option, or they might be your only option. School systems aren’t known for their well-funded IT departments and many rely on older and outdated technology that might be difficult to get working at home. On the other hand, these devices are already pre-configured with all the required software and may even include tech support. Some schools might even require you to use them.

Be conscious as to the needs and experiences of your child and the requirements of the school. Check with the school system to ensure they support your operating system and device type. In our experience, we’ve been able to run everything we need on all our devices but there was a bit of a learning curve, especially with Google Classroom on the iPads.

Speaking of iPads, now is a great time to pick up a keyboard and maybe a trackpad or mouse. Most children today are tablet natives, but as they move from content consumption to content creation, the addition of input devices will open up more screen real estate. We found that the onscreen keyboard often obscured important parts of the screen, especially in browser-based applications, and adding a physical keyboard was the only way to make certain sites work.

Since I have a bit of a technology addiction, we started this journey with a mix of old and new gear and let the children migrate to what they were most comfortable with. My 7-year-old-son stuck with his new iPad and a keyboard. We considered adding an Apple Pencil or Logitech Crayon, but he hasn’t needed that for any of his assignments yet. He has headphones available, but we tend to keep him on speaker since he isn’t the most dedicated student and that allows us to keep tabs on his studies. My wife spends much of her day checking in on him and helping him as necessary.

My middle daughter uses her iPad and a keyboard, but she backs it up with the school-provided Chromebook. She likes to video conference on one device while typing in her work on the other. She asked for some cheap Bluetooth headphones and uses them pretty consistently.

My oldest daughter absconded with my late 2012 MacBook Pro. I restored the stock operating system and it performs significantly better than I expected. She also has an iPad but hasn’t used it that much for school since she picked up the laptop.

We also have a family iMac available, but the kids just use that for larger projects like making presentations or editing videos. I also have an old monitor and adapters for the iPad or laptops but, so far, they sit unused.

Prepare for Your Shifts on the Help Desk

Depending on the age and experience of your children, you might find yourself in the unenviable position of being the family’s tech support. Then again, some of you might have been leaning on your kids for years to keep your tech running. Here are some recommendations for handling issues we’ve been experiencing as we started schooling at home:

  • Prep their apps ahead of time. If possible, spend some time learning the main applications your school uses and test them out before classes start. Our school switched video chat to Google Classroom and we nearly missed the first day of classes since we didn’t know Classroom had integrated video chat, but you had to install the app and know where to tap on the iPad. I then quickly installed all the Google apps on the iPads since my kids had previously just run them in the browser.
  • Record login credentials on stickies. I strongly recommend that you write down all the usernames and passwords your kids need to use, even if you use a password manager. We ran into problems on the first day of school because the district wasn’t clear about which logins went with which services and didn’t support single sign on. Password managers are great, but they may be too hard for younger children and regardless, you might need to move quickly between devices and accounts so having a paper backup is a good idea. Yes, I realize the irony of  a security expert recommending that you write down your passwords.
  • Make bookmarks. You and your child will be visiting the same sites repeatedly, so take a few minutes to bookmark all the school sites and give them useful titles/descriptions so they make sense to you and your child.
  • Get ready to call tech support. No matter how technically capable you may be, you might need help with internal school systems. Many schools and districts now offer remote technical support. Write the number down and stick it on the refrigerator even if you don’t think you’ll need it.

Get Creative, and Build Good Habits

My wife has become the master of making the day at home feel like a day at school or summer camp. Our days start at regular times, and the kids have to wake up and get dressed just as they normally would. My wife then makes lunches and sometimes even puts them in lunchboxes, just as if the kids were going to school. She converted a small table to serve as our cafeteria and lays out the same snacks we would send to school for their breaks. At the end of their scheduled classes, small group activities, and project work, the kids have to clean up their workspace to prepare for the next day, even if they’ll have to do homework later.

We treat every weekday like a school day, on a school schedule, and try to replicate the structure to the extent possible.

We’re also concerned that they get enough physical activity, so I converted our garage into a gym and playground. While winters in Phoenix are mild, the temperatures have been over 110ºF (43ºC)for over 40 days. We pulled out the cars, put in a portable air conditioner, bought some cheap gymnastics mats, and I bolted some gymnastics rings to the ceiling. I won’t say their aerial shows are up to Cirque du Soleil standards yet, but we’ve had surprisingly few injuries.

Don’t Forget Mental Health

These are unprecedented times, with levels of persistent fear and uncertainty permeating society in ways not seen for generations. In many ways, children are more flexible and resilient than adults, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the short and long term impacts not only of school at home, but also of the changes to family dynamics, social activities, and personal concerns as kids return to in-person education.

Our children need time to be children. Just as all work-at-home experts recommend stepping away from the home office at the end of the day, it is incredibly important to allow your children the same separation. Most kids have lost a lot of the milestones that define childhood: birthday parties, play dates, summer camps, vacations, and regularly scheduled activities. My wife and I are trying to temper their losses with creative approaches.

Our kids get a break when their school requirements end, just as I used to go to a friend’s house or veg out in front of the TV back in my elementary school days. We encourage them to play out in the garage, including participating in virtual dance or gymnastics classes, or head out to the park around the corner with plenty of water and sunscreen. While we’ve cut off indoor playtime with friends, we accept the moderate risk of outside play with a little social distancing. With fewer kids occupied by scheduled activities, the park around the corner is now home to evening pickup soccer games with groups of kids that never even knew they lived in the same neighborhood. It’s a risk, but one we decided to accept.

Our children don’t get to skip homework, but the time is blocked no differently than when they attended in-person school. Some parents feel they need to put extra time in to compensate for less effective online learning but we feel providing mental breaks is more important. We also try to provide evening and weekend diversions, including movie nights (sometimes outside using a cheap projector and a sheet), trips to a nearby pool, geocaching (see “Internet-Guided Offline Recreation (IGOR): Geocaching,” 9 June 2003), and takeout dinners from their favorite restaurants. For my 9-year-old daughter’s birthday later this month, we let her pick out a house nearby to rent for a weekend for a little staycation.

We also have one last and hard rule—my daughter barged into my office to ensure I included in this article—we don’t allow them to have devices in their bedrooms at night, but we make sure they always have a block of time before sleep to read from paper books.

Make the Best of a Bad Situation

School at home is challenging, especially since we don’t know how long it will last. Even in locations that are offering in-person schooling, there is always the risk that an outbreak will send students back home.

No one—parents, teachers, politicians, and employers—consider this an ideal or even good situation, but it’s the reality we now live in and must accept. The only rational response is to make the best of it and try to provide the most normalcy possible for our kids.

I fully recognize that our household is in a far better situation than many due to our economic stability and having a non-working parent who can keep the kids on track. But I hope others can learn from these tips while adapting to online schooling.

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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