Firdose Moonda speaks to a special talent about his rapid rise, learning on the job and the uncertain future of South African cricket.
It was just after 7pm on Wednesday November 5, 2014 when 19-year-old Kagiso Rabada, on his international debut in a T20 against Australia, experienced something he fears happens only once in a lifetime.
“Before the first ball, I was nervous but after that I was just completely free,” Rabada tells AOC a few days after taking 10 wickets in South Africa’s second Test victory against Sri Lanka in Cape Town. “I haven’t felt like that since. I’d love to be able to find a way to get that feeling back but I don’t know how.”
Little more than two years later Rabada has already wizened somewhat. He had no choice after he evolved from teenage sensation to spearhead of the South African attack in such a short space of time. So short that in 2016 he played in all South Africa’s 10 Tests, 15 of their 17 ODIs and nine out of 10 T20Is.
“The more you play and the more you do well, there’s more pressure,” he admits. “It’s still fun to play and you learn about yourself a lot more but my first game was extremely liberating, I just felt very free. I always wanted to play in Australia on those wickets so I felt like it was time for me to express myself.”
Rabada’s experimentations included several short and slower balls, but none of them brought reward. He went wicketless that day, in contrast to the first impression he made on Australians when he ripped through their under 19 side at the age-group World Cup semi-final in 2014. His 6-25 put him on the global map but in Johannesburg he already had a pin in place.
The Lions’ franchise coach Geoffrey Toyana had been impressed by Rabada at a youth tournament the previous year and made plans to sign him as soon as possible. “I knew of this schoolboy who people said was quite good so I went to meet him and I found someone that wanted to learn,” says Toyana. “He spent a lot of time talking about the great West Indian fast bowlers and guys like Allan Donald and Makhaya Ntini. He spoke about the things he had seen them do that he wanted to do and I thought to myself: this kid is going far.”
I thought to myself: this kid is going far
Toyana picked Rabada to play in a pre-season exhibition fixture against rival franchise Titans in August 2013. On a slow surface that took some turn, Rabada did not make much of an impact. His four overs cost 30 runs but there was a greater significance to his first appearance than figures. That match was the inaugural eKasi (Xhosa for township) challenge game, an annual event that takes cricket to underdeveloped areas which black people were forced to live in under apartheid. Mamelodi – close to Pretoria – and Soweto – outside Johannesburg – are the two host areas. Rabada is a beacon of hope for people in those areas.
He does not come from anywhere remotely similar in economic terms but that does not really affect the symbolism. Although Rabada grew up in the plush suburb of Fourways with a neurosurgeon father and lawyer mother and attended a private school, he is a black African and black Africans are under-represented in the national cricket side. More than two decades after unity, Rabada is only the seventh black African to play Test cricket and he admits there is a “responsibility” that comes with that: the responsibility to be a hero to millions.
Black Africans make up close to 80 per cent of South Africa’s population, which means there is a massive untapped pool of potential that Cricket South Africa long neglected to reach out to. That is set to change thanks to an aggressive transformation policy which stipulates that the national side should, over a season, field a minimum average of six players of colour, of which at least two are black African, in the XI. Rabada would have come through regardless of that directive but he was probably fast-tracked because of it.
When he made his Test debut in November 2015, the then 20-year-old had only played 14 first-class matches. In South Africa’s history only Paul Adams (5) and Dale Steyn (7) had featured in fewer when they made their Test bows, while Mark Boucher, Marchant de Lange and David Terbrugge had also played 14.
Despite Rabada’s achievements in the domestic arena – he took 14-105 in a match against the Dolphins to record the best figures in the franchise era – and in international limited-overs cricket, at the time Toyana thought it was too soon. Rabada had claimed 6-16 on ODI debut in Bangladesh, which included a hat-trick, but Test cricket is a different challenge, and a particularly difficult one in India. South Africa’s frontline quicks – Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander – were all injured at some stage on the tour, which resulted in Rabada playing three of the four Tests.
India prepared turning tracks which made the batsmen wish they were injured too and, after three heavy defeats, South Africa lost their No.1 ranking and their morale. However, Rabada was able to see the value in the experience.
“The wickets were really abrasive so you have to find new ways,” he says. “It was tough because they absolutely cleaned us up with their spin but looking back it was an amazing experience in terms of learning. You don’t always have to have an amazing experience by winning.”
Victory definitely helps though, and Rabada played a crucial role in returning the team to winning ways at the end of that summer in Centurion. He took 13 wickets against England, narrowly missing out on Ntini’s record for the best Test figures by a South African, and surprised himself with his success. “I didn’t expect that to happen,” he recalls. “It just happened out of nowhere but it was a very nice milestone.”
I’ve been asked whether the Kolpak deals weaken South African cricket, and I don’t think so
Since then he has been a key figure in three successive series wins over New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka, and Toyana has reversed his opinion. “Initially I thought he was playing too much, too soon but in the last six months I have changed my mind because I can see he is an athlete. He knows how to look after and manage himself and he understands that there are days when he will bowl well without reward. He is comfortable with the different spectrum of the game, which is very mature.”
Nowhere is that more evident than the way Rabada has responded to the biggest challenge currently facing South African cricket. During the recent series against Sri Lanka, Kyle Abbott, who was just starting to get a regular run in the Test team, announced in a tearful press conference that he signed a Kolpak deal to play county cricket for Hampshire, effectively ending his international career. He is not the only one. In recent months, six other South African internationals – Rilee Rossouw, Stiaan van Zyl, Simon Harmer, Hardus Viljoen, David Wiese and Dane Vilas – have come to the same decision.
Transformation is an easy excuse for those players and asking Rabada about it feels awkward, but he has a thoughtful answer. “I’ve been asked whether the Kolpak deals weaken South African cricket, and I don’t think so. Although there were big losses, we’ve got lots of talent coming up. And it’s not just the talent that’s exciting, it’s also the age group that I come from. It’s different and a lot more diverse. It’s a lot more open. It’s a really nice generation. I think South African cricket will only get stronger.”
Rabada name-checks the likes of Lungi Ngidi, an inclusion in South Africa’s T20 squad for the Sri Lanka series, and Duanne Olivier, the newest Test debutant, as two emerging stars.
Now, I actually know what I am doing. Well… I still don’t know exactly what I am doing completely but I hope to get to that stage
As for Rabada himself, the future could hardly look brighter. “You learn a lot with bowling and you get more conscious about what you are doing,” he says. “Before it was a lot more subconscious. Now, I actually know what I am doing. Well… I still don’t know exactly what I am doing completely but I hope to get to that stage.”
To get there, Rabada will continue to seek out new opportunities. This year it will be at the IPL. Last year, it was during his spell in county cricket at Kent where he hoped to familiarise himself with the conditions South Africa will face on their tour of England this summer.
As much as that trip was about cricket, he says it was also about growing up, spending time away from home and finding his own feet in a foreign land. “I enjoyed seeing how things work there. Everything works nicely. It was a nice experience. Not just in cricket, but in life. I learnt to just live my life. It’s not all about the cricket. I just live my life.”
Having made the step up to professional sportsman so soon after he was a schoolboy, Rabada has not had much of a chance to build a life outside the game, but he is trying. He enjoys “music and chilling with friends” and says, “Maybe one day I will go on an adventure”. Perhaps someone should tell the best and most exciting young cricketer in the world that he is already on one of the best of them.