“Sometimes you do think of physically hurting the opposition with the ball,” Kagiso Rabada says, matter of factly, as he explains what sets the greatest exponents of his art apart. South Africa’s 24-year-old fast bowler, who became the youngest player to be ranked No 1 in the world two years ago, has all the attributes necessary to be one of them.
Able to consistently top 90mph, he glides across the surface as he charges towards the wicket, bowling as if his body was designed for this single purpose.
“It’s not just skill that makes the great fast bowlers in history what they are,” Rabada says as he prepares for the four-Test series against England that begins on Boxing Day in Centurion. “They all have that intensity that makes it uncomfortable for batsmen to stand up to. The aggression is something that is naturally in me. It makes me a better bowler. It helps me bowl faster for longer. I haven’t always been in control of it but I’m getting better.”
Rabada has had his run-ins with authorities since his career began as a 19-year-old in 2014. He has been found guilty of breaching the ICC’s code of conduct on five occasions and has been suspended twice.
When Australia arrived for the 2018 Test series that would be defined by the ball-tampering scandal, Steve Smith hinted his side would look to antagonise Rabada. He was initially suspended during the series for making contact with Smith after dismissing him during the second Test, only for it to be overturned on appeal.
“I look back and I acknowledge I’ve lost control in the past,” Rabada says. “It’s about finding that balance. I can still be that aggressive bowler who intimidates. But I’ve learned to pick my moments. It takes a sound, steady mind to maintain the balance and I’m more mature now.”
The last book Rabada read was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and he uses the word “battle” on several occasions when speaking of the contest against England.
One of the more intriguing subplots of the series will focus on the duel of the leading quicks in each team and in Jofra Archer, Rabada has a ready made adversary for the next two months.
“He’s a quality bowler, there’s no question,” he says of England’s spearhead, who was back bowling in the nets on Monday after recovering from a virus that has hit their camp. “I get asked about him a lot and I’m always getting compared to the other top fast bowlers in the world. I take it as a compliment. It doesn’t matter if it’s [Jasprit] Bumrah or [Pat] Cummins or Archer. We’ve all got egos as fast bowlers. You need to have an ego but there is no jealousy. When someone does better than me it just motivates me. I’ve always said I want to be recognised as the best in the world and competition drives me towards that goal.”
Of all the aforementioned, it is Archer who has left the most memorable mark on the minds of South African cricket fans. On the opening day of the World Cup in May Archer’s extra bite off the Oval surface beat Hashim Amla’s attempted pull shot for pace. The ball cannoned into the veteran’s helmet and sent a shock wave that was felt on Africa’s southern tip.
South Africans play their sport with an overt machismo. On the cricket field the fast bowler is the apex predator and from Allan Donald to Dale Steyn, there has been a ceaseless line of demon quicks. This is one aspect of the game in which they have traditionally had an edge over England. The addition of Archer evens the contest.
“You want to go out and return the favour when someone hits your batter,” Rabada says. “But you can’t let your emotions get the better of you. You need to use that motivation to rev you up but you can’t think irrationally. My job is to take wickets. Sometimes that means getting aggressive and bowling short but sometimes it means having more control. My record shows I know when to do this.”
In 40 Tests, Rabada has taken 183 wickets at an average of 22.5. Only Steyn, Cummins and Vernon Philander have a better average this decade with more than 100 dismissals. He has struggled this year with injury and a lack of intensity and pace, including at a disappointing World Cup, and that led some to believe he has bowled too many balls at his relatively young age. But new faces in the camp have had a revitalising impact.
“It feels like a fresh start,” Rabada said of the appointments of Mark Boucher as the coach, Jacques Kallis as the batting consultant and Charl Langeveldt as the bowling coach. “We’re motivated to get out there and put a tough year behind us.”
Rabada’s story is not solely defined by what he does on the cricket field. Being a black South African athlete 25 years after the end of apartheid means his performances carry greater significance. But unlike his teammates Temba Bavuma and Lungisani Ngidi, Rabada’s journey did not begin in poverty. He is the son of a doctor and a lawyer and attended one of the most expensive schools in the country in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
“I know I grew up privileged but that doesn’t change that my skin colour is black, that in the past I wouldn’t have been given this opportunity,” he says. “We [black athletes in South Africa] want to inspire young people and challenge people with closed mindsets. But players should get looked at for their skill as well. Maybe that can be a message to journalists. Where we come from is part of our story but it shouldn’t be the only part.”
With Philander having announced he will be joining Steyn in international retirement at the end of this series, Rabada is the undisputed figurehead of the South Africa attack. Once seen as volatile, he enters a new stage in his career with added responsibility on and off the field.