Both Rabada and Temba Bavuma engineered a seismic shift in perceptions of black cricketers during the Test series against England last year (aptly named after Basil d’Oliveira, a coloured Capetonian cricketer who represented England after being excluded from the South African team on the basis of race), causing skipper AB de Villiers to gush: “With SA’s history, seeing them come through in the way they did was one of the highlights of my career.”
Rabada’s 13 for 144 – second only to Makhaya Ntini’s 13 for 132 in terms of best Test bowling figures by a South African – may have come in what was effectively a dead rubber, with England having already scooped the series, but his devastating pace and penetration made cricketing scribes around the world sit up and take notice.
To be fair, it should have been no surprise, as the towering tearaway’s short career had been punctuated with superlatives since winning the U19 World Cup in 2014 in the United Arab Emirates. He’d already taken a hat-trick on debut in a ODI against Bangladesh and was roundly lauded as the Proteas next destroyer-in-chief, with no mention of quotas anywhere.
Rabada brushes aside any notion of him “leading” the Proteas attack, saying that this is a media concoction. He remains grounded despite his meteoric rise over the past two seasons and although he exudes confidence, he gives the impression that he is cognisant of his limitations and that he still has a long way to go.
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“I focus on doing the basics right – if it gets mewickets, it gets me wickets,” he says. I can only control the controllables. I don’t look at stats, I just do what I do.The key is to do it for 15 years, not one game. My pace allows me to get away with a lot – all the greatest fast bowlers have been quick.
“I’m me, and I’m trying to be like me and no- one else. I look up to lots of bowlers, not just one – it doesn’t matter what country you’re from. If I like something, I’ll try to incorporate that into me.”
It is a testament to his methodical approach to his career that Rabada spurned the advances of the lucrative Indian Premier League to develop his skills on English wickets for Kent, with a view to the Proteas tour to Blighty next year.
This sure-footedness compelled former Proteas fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam to hail the young quick, saying that he had never before seen a cricketer so level-headed and assured at such a young age, who knew “exactly what he wants to achieve”.
I’m labelled as a ‘born free’ in SA. Obviously, I know the history, but I didn’t live through that era, so I don’t know what it was like.
Rabada says that he has always been able to bowl quickly, but he wasn’t a standout performer in his early years and to his eternal chagrin, failed to snare a five-wicket haul at high school. With the number one world ranking looking more an inevitability than a pipe dream, he’s bound to get many more five-fers in the international arena.
Some credit for this humility is due to his neurosurgeon father, who has taken a keen interest in his son’s career. Rabada had a relatively privileged upbringing and attended the elite St Stithians College in Johannesburg, but his father insisted that he visit townships on weekends to do charity work, understand how the less fortunate lived and develop a sense of compassion.
Rabada Sr says that all he wants for his son is that he “be compassionate, do good and help and inspire others by being the best he can in his chosen field”.
Born in 1995, Rabada pays little heed to his role in advancing transformation.“To me, skin colour is irrelevant,” he explains. “I’m labelled as a ‘born free’ in SA. Obviously, I know the history, but I didn’t live through that era, so I don’t know what it was like. There is still racism around, but I don’t see skin colour in anything.”
Continue to next page for Temba Bavuma’s story