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‘I choose to thrive’: the man fighting motor neurone disease with cyborg technology

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In November 2017, Peter B Scott-Morgan received the news that almost nothing can prepare you for – he was told he had just two years to live. Peter had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND). It kills a third of those who have it within a year, rising to a half by the end of year two, with no known cure. Devastated as Peter was, he’d already decided this was negotiable. Fortunately, long before his own diagnosis, he had been fascinated by the idea of harnessing the power of modern technology to prolong human life.

Already a year had passed since his first symptoms had started appearing. After stepping out of the bath while on a trip to the Arctic Circle, he’d noticed that shaking the water from his feet as he emerged was suddenly and inexplicably out of his grasp. This was the earliest stage of the near-total paralysis that the condition would soon inflict on him. As the disease develops, messages sent from his brain and spinal cord would eventually stop reaching his muscles entirely – his body was failing him one piece at a time.

In the months that followed, he read up on clinical research and papers. “Very quickly I concluded that, whatever the medical profession, charities and even those living with MND continued to insist, the moniker of ‘the cruellest disease’ really seemed to be out of date.”

Peter explains all this via email. It lands in my inbox a few days before we’ve agreed to speak. He assures me that writing down his initial thoughts will make our subsequent conversation smoother. He now speaks using eye-gaze technology (his voice box has been removed), and the cutting-edge software he’s reliant on to communicate is still subject to the occasional bug.

In truth, Peter had long been laying the foundations for his own groundbreaking transition. Few people could be better placed than this 62-year-old to battle the effects of this neurological condition and win. He is a scientist with an interest in artificial intelligence (AI), and his PhD from Imperial College London was the first ever granted by a robotics faculty in Britain. He applied these problem-solving skills commercially, developing innovative techniques in management consultancy, all the while teaching at the London Business School, Rotterdam School of Management and Boston’s Hult International Business School.

It’s hard to read sections of his first book – The Robotics Revolution, published in 1984 – and not question whether he’d unwittingly spent decades preparing for his own fate. “If the path of enhanced human is followed,” he wrote at the time, “then it will be possible for mankind and robots to remain on the same evolutionary branch… In this way, mankind will one day be able to replace its all-too- vulnerable bodies with more permanent mechanisms, and use the supercomputers as Intelligence Amplifiers.” Today we’d call that AI.

Peter with a chest screen that reveals his emotions.



‘I knew that with focused hi-tech research it was possible to transform what it meant to have MND’: a chest screen reveals Peter’s emotions. Photograph: Channel 4

While sitting in a consulting room at London’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, listening to his doctor explaining the details of MND, he was already calculating what his next steps might be in this race against time to prepare for the inevitable. There was much to be done before all his movement would be lost, at which point his brain would still remain fully active. Could he embrace medicine and mechanics to create a life worth living before he became “locked in”?

“I was thinking about what I’d have to do 10 seconds after they told me,” his email continues, “straight after wondering how my husband would take the news.”

While he might not have been able to articulate the finer details of his plan in that moment, every synapse in his brain was firing. “I refuse simply to stay alive,” he writes, “I choose to THRIVE!” It was simplistic, he says, almost adolescent obstinacy. But this determination was based on solid science, too. “I knew that with some focused hi-tech research it was quite possible to transform what it meant to have MND,” he explains, “and if I took the right precautions then, rather than in two years, I had a good chance of living for another couple of decades.” So, almost immediately, he set about exploring what he might achieve.

“I envisioned what realistically, with the right encouragement, could be done to change what it means to have extreme disability,” he says. “Then I worked backwards to work out what would come first.” The time had come to put a lifetime of research into practice on a human guinea pig. It just so happened the guinea pig would be himself.

Two and a half years later, little has changed in the Scott-Morgan house during lockdown. Since his condition deteriorated, routines have remained the same at their home on the Devon coast. By 7am, a team of carers has arrived to help Peter get up and ready. There’s physiotherapy, cleaning and routine maintenance of his now fully integrated machinery. Underneath Peter’s clothes are various pipes and pieces of intricate engineering; the two screens which he uses to communicate need preparing before his arrival in the office downstairs at around 10am. “For 41 years he has always spent eight hours, if not 12, in front of a computer,” says Francis – Peter’s partner – feigning frustration.

We’re meeting on Zoom, the couple busy chatting about their early years together. They first met when, in 1979, Peter arrived to check into his room at one of the country’s first gay hotels, only to decide he was far more interested to find out where the man standing across from him at the counter could be found after dark. Francis tells the story – of the instant infatuation between this Devon lad who’d left school at 16 and his well-educated Wimbledon lover, and of their happy years together, first in London while Peter completed his doctorate in robotics before work took them to the US. In 2000, they returned to Torquay.

In some ways, conversation flows like that between any married couple, with interjection, correction and gentle ribbing as stories are regaled of two lives intertwined. They assure me they still argue, still talk big decisions over as a couple – even if this takes a little longer. “I don’t think our relationship has changed much at all,” says Francis. “It’s based on what’s going on inside rather than our physical bodies, but we’re not 20 anymore.”

That’s not to say things have always run smoothly. As a young couple they encountered challenges as they set about living an openly gay life. Some of Peter’s family had issues when he came out and casual homophobia from some colleagues was common, too. This, they say, taught them to be resilient.

“When we were younger,” says Francis, “we were bullied by the police, the boys at school, by Margaret Thatcher and her government. Society as a whole didn’t value us. We learned from experience that you stand up to bullies; you don’t let them see you’re hurting.” In their eyes, MND is merely the biggest bully they’ve encountered so far. “We used to be told we could never live normal lives as gay people,” Peter continues. “People assume a life being totally paralysed is one not worth living. People thought the same of our sexuality in the past.”

Once Peter decided to embark on his path to human cyborg, many made the same assumptions. Before his first set of operations, clinicians asked if the couple understood the choices they were making. “It was as if some of them wanted me to just prepare to die,” says Peter firmly. “I respectfully declined.”

Two years after his diagnosis, Peter underwent his first procedures in July 2018. His stomach was re-plumbed so nutrients could be channelled in automatically. A pump keeps him hydrated. A catheter and colostomy bag deal with the results.

In October 2019 he had a laryngectomy removing his vocal cords, to allow him to breathe artificially. In advance of the operation, he worked with specialists to bank the sound of his voice for the future, laboriously recording himself saying some 20,000 words. Today, he uses eye-gaze technology to communicate. A more rudimentary system was made famous by Stephen Hawking. Cameras track the movement of his pupils as he types words on a screen, while sentences are played back through speakers using a synthetic voice which sounds just like his own.

Peter undergoing research in a lab



‘We can make things better for everyone with a disability’: undergoing research. Photograph: Channel 4

Some stages of his transition are still pending. Plans to project an avatar on to his face which will move as he speaks and express his emotions are in development. Instead, today it’s displayed on a screen attached to his chest. He’s also actively pushing to take this technology further, hoping one day to be held upright in a self-drive vehicle with an exoskeleton encasing his now limp upper body. As has been the way for decades, he’s waiting for technology to keep up with what’s already clear in his mind. Researchers at Intel are working on improvements to his communication capabilities – an artificial intelligence system will soon give him automatic options for words and phrases responsive to situations and based on his own personality, speeding up conversations so he won’t have to type out everything with his eyes.

Whatever technology is used, Peter’s brain will have control of it. Any AI used to make life easier will come under his command. “Think about it like a mobile phone using predictive text,” explains Francis. “The system might give Peter options, but he can opt which – if any – to use.”

Imagine, he suggests, Peter as a conductor, free to wave his baton at any section of an orchestra knowing exactly what sound will come out. In time, his language skills will develop even beyond his own abilities – there’s no reason he won’t be able to speak in countless languages. The most moving moment in an upcoming Channel 4 documentary about Peter’s journey sees him listening to his own voice singing a pitch-perfect rendition of Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Peter 1.0, Francis assures me, could barely hold a note.

“If we can improve things for Peter,” says Francis, “we can improve it for everyone with a disability, whether it’s MND, a stroke or old age.” Millions of people could benefit from this technology. “A lot of people are already contacting Peter to say they’re inspired, that he’s given them hope.” As he speaks, Francis reaches out to his husband and squeezes his hand tightly. Peter might be paralysed, but his sense of touch remains.

Still, exposure is only part of the battle – technology like this doesn’t come cheap. Basic wheelchairs and some eye-gaze systems are NHS-funded, but robotic wheelchairs, avatars and, in most cases, synthetic voices aren’t. Organisations such as the Motor Neurone Disease Association will support patients who need funding for steps such as voice recording, and are working closely with big tech companies to develop technology, which they intend to keep open source. “Some people think it’s selfish,” says Peter, “that it’s too expensive for the NHS to pay for. They think doing this is a delusional mistake that people like me will regret.” Understandably, Peter sees it differently. It’s hard to argue with someone whose case is that they simply want to stay alive.

Much of this story will be told in the documentary. For Peter and Francis – two introverts – the decision to offer unfettered access to the most challenging time in their lives wasn’t an easy one to make

“It was a huge decision to go public,” says Peter, “but a friend pointed out that the only way that some of the best brains in the galaxy would get involved in rewriting the future of extreme disability would be if they somehow got to hear of my quest.” He points out that one in 300 of us will be diagnosed with MND at some point, and that whether lifesaving operations are offered to us depends on our postcode. “We’ve heard stories of neurologists giving a diagnosis and then handing over a box of tissues saying make peace and prepare to die,” Francis says. Medical interventions have given Peter a normal life expectancy; technology has already ensured it’s one of quality, too.

Revealing all, though, didn’t just mean baring their souls to the world. “All my life I had kept slim, fit, and healthy,” Peter had told me. “The vain part of me longed to clutch on to a vestige of dignity as my muscles withered away and left me looking little more than an emaciated cadaver.”

Once the film airs, the Scott-Morgan Foundation, a registered charity bringing together what Peter calls a “rebel alliance” of corporations and experts, will launch. This will, he hopes, bring his vision of technological and human synergy to fruition. Peter has a 20-year plan for the foundation. At an age when most people start to prepare for a quiet retirement, Peter is resolute – he’s just getting started. It sounds exhausting.

So, I ask, what keeps him going? There’s a pause as he types. “Carrying on living is certainly up there,” he says. “Even higher is carrying on having hopes and dreams and prospects. But number one, of course, is carrying on side by side with the person I’ve loved all my adult life. That’s well worth changing the world for.”

Peter: The Human Cyborg is on Channel 4 later this month

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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Five great Twenty20 World Cup upsets | SuperSport – Africa’s source of sports video, fixtures, results and news






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