When Kagiso Rabada took a record-equalling 13 wickets in just his sixth Test match it may have astonished the cricket world, but it merely continued an amazing trend in his still youthful career of rapidly excelling at every new level he has been thrust into.
While he was a pupil at St Stithians, he made the Gauteng Schools side while still in Grade 11 and immediately made his mark with 3/26 and a brilliant final over to win a T20 game against North-West.
He was earmarked as a future star by being chosen for the SA Schools Colts side and by the time Rabada was in matric, he was already playing for the SA Under-19 team touring England.
SA Schools selection was a given in 2013 and he first announced himself to the global stage at the 2014 Under-19 World Cup when he destroyed Australia with 6/25 in the semifinal and played a major role in South Africa winning that prestigious ICC title for the first time.
He made his first-class debut for Gauteng in the same summer and, after just two games and seven wickets in the first-class three-day competition, he was promoted to the Highveld Lions senior franchise team, again taking seven wickets in two matches.
When the Highveld Lions won the Sunfoil Series in March 2015 – the first time they had won the four-day competition since the inception of the franchise system – Rabada was their joint leading wicket- taker with Hardus Viljoen, taking 39 wickets at 21.12, including a magnificent 14 wickets in the match against the Dolphins at the Wanderers. His nine for 33 in the second innings, setting up a 10-wicket win, were the second-best innings figures in the franchise era and his match haul of 14 for 105 beat Dale Steyn’s previous best of 14 for 110. They were the best figures ever recorded at the famous Bullring.
Despite his tender years, international cricket was the logical next step and, in his ODI debut against Bangladesh in Mirpur, in conditions that could not have been more foreign to the lush Highveld pitches he was used to, Rabada took six for 16, including a hat-trick.
While being able to swing the ball at high pace is an amazing gift, Rabada still seems to have an extraordinary knack for taking wickets. Former West Indies bowling all-rounder Ottis Gibson, the England bowling coach who spent many summers in South Africa playing for Border, Gauteng and Griqualand West, says that’s because Rabada bows a fuller length than most South African fast bowlers, meaning he will find the edge of the bat more often.
While the 20-year-old generally gets the ball up there to maximise movement, he does possess a slippery bouncer and uses it extremely well as a surprise delivery. At his pace, it’s more like a shock ball.
Because of his tremendous talent and his importance in socio-political terms, there has been plenty of noise about protecting Rabada from a too-heavy workload. But the bowler himself said this week that he prefers doing more bowling and he doesn’t feel that he needs treatment that is any different to the monitoring and managing the other Proteas quicks undergo.
The knees are good, he has a tremendously athletic build and, apparently, a perfectly-aligned spine, an absolute rarity that is a great gift for any fast bowler.
Gibson was also certain that Rabada would get quicker as he reaches full adulthood – a scary prospect – and, interestingly, that there were even technical tweaks he could do to give him some extra yards of pace.
Time will tell whether Rabada will break the records of Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Steyn at international level, but they have all been mightily impressed by the level-headed young man who has the temperament to go with his physical attributes.
“His overall skill just blows me away and even his control is exceptional, it’s a bit freakish. I still think he’s going to get quicker and it stands him in good stead that he’s grooving that control for when the extra pace comes later. He’s already ahead of where he should be, his rhythm is good, he’s tall, athletic and can bowl a heavy ball, and when you combine all of that together, as he grows into his body he’s definitely going to get faster,” Donald, who was the bowling coach when Rabada was first included in the Proteas squad, said.
“He’s got all the raw ingredients. He has pace, control, heart and athleticism. And he is only 20. He has shown he can learn fast and has also bowled very well in the end overs, shown very good temperament,” was Pollock’s considered view.
Steyn is excited about someone he has been mentoring.
“KG has a very good attitude and is always asking a lot of questions – and the right questions. He has everything he needs to be a good fast bowler – pace, a good build, quite tall and intimidating,” Steyn said.
Ntini, for so long the lone Black African flagbearer, is delighted.
“I am so excited, happiness is an understatement. I am excited to watch him in the long run. He has put it out there that you should fear me now, not me being worried about who I am bowling to. If he can continue and have his head grounded, nothing will change. He is almost like a young apple tree that is growing very, very fast in a desert.”