Dale Steyn’s continued injury problems over the last 14 months have thrust the spotlight onto firebrand young fast bowler Kagiso Rabada, but the South African has already illustrated on a number of occasions that he has all the attributes to shine.
His spell of bowling to a swashbuckling Hardik Pandya in the first Test against India at Newlands on Saturday showed all his qualities – extreme pace, accuracy and the aggression that was at times missing from some of his teammates.
Pandya was superb in taking the attack to the South Africans with the bat but Rabada took up the challenge and, bowling at close to 150-kilometres per hour, comfortably the quickest of all the seamers in the match, fought back as he used the conditions to his advantage.
After landing a number of blows to the body of the Indian all-rounder, he induced an edge to wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock to end Pandya’s vital innings of 93 from 95 balls.
Rabada’s figures of 3-34 in 16.4 overs were the best of the South African bowlers, achieved at an excellent economy rate even for Test cricket.
And with Steyn ruled out for the remainder of the Test, and most likely the series, with a heel injury, Rabada will have to shoulder even more of the responsibility in the coming weeks.
But this is something he is used too, and as one of just a handful of black African cricketers to represent South Africa in Test cricket, that responsibility to act as a role-model continues off the pitch as well.
Makhaya Ntini took 390 Test wickets and set the standard as an icon for the country’s black youth, but there is the real belief that if Rabada can stay injury-free, he will surpass that career tally and potentially become South Africa’s greatest ever fast bowler. The early signs are that he will.
Rabada has 108 wickets in his 24th test at an average of 21.99 and a strike rate under 40.
When you consider that his first three Tests in November 2015 were played on spin-friendly Indian wickets that offered no assistance to the seamers, and he returned an analysis of 2-111 in that series, his stats since the start of 2016 look even better.
His average and strike rate are better than Steyn, Philander and Morkel but he still went into the first Test at Newlands as arguably the 4th-choice seamer. Certainly, he was the fourth bowler used in the South African innings, only being handed the ball for one over on the opening day.
It is form that has taken him to number two in the ICC test bowler rankings, but he says that for now he is happy to play the support role to his teammates.
“When you are bowling with quality bowlers like Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn … Dale is the quickest ever to 400 [wickets] and Philander is the quickest South African to 100 wickets,” Rabada said on Saturday.
“You have to understand that these guys are going to come before you because they have done such great stuff. You have to always be eager to come up and bowl, but you have to also let those guys do their thing for the team.
“There are three seamers now that have to do the work [in this test]. It is not nice for Dale because he has just come back from injury, so we are just feeling very sympathetic towards him. But we have to find a way to win this test match.”
Rabada first came to international prominence when he spearheaded the South African attack in helping the side lift the 2014 ICC Under-19 World Cup.
Unlike Ntini, who was plucked from the rural Eastern Cape and given a scholarship to the prestigious Dale College, Rabada was born and raised in the country’s urban hub, Johannesburg, and into a family of professionals.
His father is a doctor and his mother a lawyer, and he was sent to St Stithians College, an exclusive private school in the city’s northern suburbs.
Although his family claim that his first love was soccer, Rabada offered a different view when quizzed.
“Ever since I was young I wanted to play for the Proteas, and it’s amazing to be playing with the guys who were my heroes as a kid. It’s so cool to be with them. I’m just being myself. I don’t want to be like anybody else.”
Injuries opened the door for his One-Day International debut against Bangladesh in July 2015 and he did not disappoint, recording figures of 6-16 that included a hat-trick.
Only Imran Tahir (7-45 vs West Indies, June 2016) has better figures for South Africa in the 50-over game.
Another injury to Steyn meant he was thrust into the Test team as well months later in India and while it was a difficult introduction, he would have learned a lot.
His career in the longest format sparked into life with the home series against England in the 2015/16 summer that included match figures of 13-144 in the final test, again the second best for South Africa in five-day games.
Six months later he had collected a record six trophies at the annual Cricket South Africa Awards, including being named as the country’s youngest ever Cricketer of the Year.
He has been described as a “diamond” by his former coach at youth level, Ray Jennings.
“He was always going to be something special but it took a lot of work. The thing about Kagiso was he was prepared to learn and work,” Jennings told reporters. “He is the kind of guy who wants to extract as much information as he can, to analyse what is going wrong and what is going right. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Rabada is also handy with the bat and could yet turn into a genuine all-rounder, though for now he is concentrating on doing his work for the team with the ball. And ominously perhaps for India, he says he is yet to hit top gear with lively wickets expected in Pretoria and Johannesburg in the next two Tests.
“My rhythm is quite good, but I don’t think I’m hitting my straps fully. I feel I’m a bit inconsistent.”
If this is an “inconsistent” Rabada, then he could yet be the hottest of all of South Africa’s quicks for India to handle.
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