The cricketing phenomenon

The South African bowler, Kagiso Rabada, is arguably one of the best to play test cricket, and could retire as South Africa’s highest wicket-taker if the country plays more red-ball cricket.

England vs. South Africa at Oval, London, 2017. Image credit Kotomi Creations via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Years ago, Adam Gilchrist, the legendary Australian wicketkeeper and former captain of Australia’s national team, was asked about his favorite moment on a cricket field. Gilchrist didn’t pick landmark innings or Test match victories. Instead, he described something more intimate. His favorite moment, he said, was the fraction of a second when the ball made contact with the middle of his bat, and he and only he, out of all the people at the ground and all of the viewers on television, knew the connection was sweet and perfect.

For Kagiso Rabada, that moment is when the ball leaves the hand and it feels just right. In that fraction of a second, he alone knows that the ball is traveling at the perfect speed and will land on the exact spot, perfect line and length, that he is after. Darts players are familiar with this feeling. You know as soon as the arrow takes flight whether it is headed where you want it to go or if it has gone rogue.

The earliest Rabada can remember having that feeling was in 2009. St. Stithians, his high school north of Johannesburg, was struggling to take the last wicket in a timed match. Rabada put his hand up, his captain threw the ball to him and with his first delivery of the over, Rabada sent the stumps cartwheeling.

In 2009, Rabada was 14 years old and he alone knew as the ball left his hand that he had bowled a good nut. The ball went through the batter’s defense and disrupted the woodwork before the rest of his teammates knew it. It was around this time that he decided that he wanted to be an international cricketer. He wanted to experience this joy more times. So, all the other sports he took part in at St. Stithians took a back seat. His focus was on becoming the best bowler he could be.

Six years later, on November 5 2015, Rabada made his Test debut in a dust bowl in Mohale in Punjab, India. If there is anyone that knows how to blunt world-class pace attacks, it’s Indian pitch curators. Indian curators are South African, England, Australian New Zealand pace bowlers’ bete noire. In that match, Rabada’s teammate Dean Elgar recorded both his career-best bowling figures in a match, 4/22 (four wickets for 22 runs), and career-best bowling figures in a match, 4/56. Rabada took one wicket for 49 runs in 22 overs. He was 20 years old.

Seven years, three months and 25 days after his debut, Rabada took his 276th Test wicket. He has achieved the feat in 106 innings. It took Dale Steyn 104 innings to reach 276 wickets. Rabada and Steyn are two of the seven South African bowlers who have taken 250 or more wickets since 1990. The other five are Allan Donald, Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis. Only Donald was quicker than Rabada and Steyn. It took him 102 innings. The rest are miles behind the trio.

In the pantheon of the greatest bowlers produced by South Africa, Donald, Steyn, and Rabada would sit at a table separate from everyone else. And just as Steyn surpassed Donald’s record, it seemed a no-brainer that Rabada would do the same to Steyn’s tally. In an alternate universe, when Kagiso Rabada retires from Test cricket, he does so as South Africa’s highest wicket-taker. At the very least, he retires with as many Test wickets as Dale Steyn.

It’s quite fitting that Rabada should be the one to break Steyn’s record. As bowlers, they are so similar. They both have high release points. The major differences between the two might be in delivery stride. Rabada’s feet hit the ground at a quicker pace than Steyn’s. Also, Steyn sometimes had a slightly quicker run-up while Rabada, like Jofra Archer, who represents England, seems to just amble in. Besides that, they both possess smooth and compact actions. Their biomechanics are on point, so much so that they don’t exert their bodies too much to generate pace.

On the pitch, Rabada and Steyn bowl roughly the same number of overs per innings, 17 and 18 respectively. Their strike rates are close. Steyn (who retired from test cricket in 2019 and all cricket in 2021) took a wicket every 42.3 balls, while Rabada is going at 39.8. There is daylight between their strike rates and all South African bowlers with 100 wickets or more. Allan Donald is a distant third with a strike rate of 47.

With his strike rate, Rabada requires six overs and four balls to take a wicket. Steyn, on the other hand, needed seven overs and three balls. If there was anyone meant to break Steyn’s record, it’s Rabada, one of the best bowlers to ever play Test cricket for South Africa. Let me rephrase that: one of the best bowlers to ever play Test cricket.

When compared to all Test bowlers who have taken 200 wickets or more since 1990, Rabada has the best strike rate. The top 10 of that list are: Dale Steyn, Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, Pat Cummins, Mohammed Shami, Mitch Starc, Vernon Philander, Mitch Johnson and Wasim Akram. Rabada also has the sixth-best average. That is phenomenal.

In Test history, Rabada has the lowest strike rate of anyone to take 100 wickets since George Lohmann, who played his last Test for England in 1898. When compared to bowlers with at least 100 wickets in Test cricket since 1900, Rabada leads that list. The list includes Sydney Barnes, Dale Steyn, Waqar Younis, Colin Blythe, Shoaib Akhtar, Malcolm Marshall, Allan Donald, Pat Cummins, and Mohammed Asif.

Put simply, Kagiso Rabada is one of the most dangerous bowlers to have ever bowled in Test cricket. He has the fifth-lowest strike rate in Test history if you include bowlers with less than 100 wickets to their name.

However, despite his strike rate and average, Rabada might not even come close to Shaun Pollock’s 421. He must play around 12 Test matches to reach Allan Donald’s 330. The Proteas have 12 matches between now and 2025. It will take Rabada about three years to equal Donald’s wickets. In contrast, Pat Cummins needs only a single year, just 12 months, to play 13 Tests.

From here onwards, Rabada would require around 30 to 40 matches to match or pass Steyn’s record of 439. But at South Africa’s current rate of four Tests a year, Rabada would need about 8.5 more years to get in that many Tests. That is assuming that Rabada plays in every Test South Africa plays in that period. It’s a tragedy. Rabada would have never thought that his favorite format would become such a scarce commodity.

Rabada’s command of the cricket ball is a million times better than it was at 14. That’s why he is the third-fastest bowler to reach 276. He experiences that wonderful moment more frequently than he did 13 years ago. It’s taken a lot of work. What happens at the other end is beyond his control; the batter might play the delivery well, they might not, or they might get lucky and score streaky runs. The possibilities are countless. So, Rabada focuses on what he can control, the delivery.

After the first Test against the West Indies, he bowled another good one, this time off the field. During a post-match press conference, he said, “If you look at all the other nations, they are playing a lot more Test cricket. It needs to be prioritized a lot more. I am not in charge of that, but at least I can ask.”

South Africa’s cricket suits have paid lip service to a commitment to revitalizing red-ball cricket. The 2022/23 season has not shown that. Division Two four-day cricket has the best slot, matches run from Thursday to Sunday. Division One matches awkwardly run from Sunday to Wednesday. The Test series against the West Indies has been neatly hidden from public view, it was handed midweek starts, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Who knows whether they will listen to Rabada’s plea or not? The only thing anyone is certain of is that while representing South Africa, Rabada will feel that magical moment with the white ball more than with the red ball for the foreseeable future.

Further Reading

Beyond the boundary

South African cricket is currently the subject of TRC-style hearings into the racism and nepotism in the game. It makes for riveting TV, but focuses too much on individual instances of racism and discrimination.