When you watch Kagiso Rabada answer questions, it’s easy to see that there’s a spiky side to him, a bit of what those in sport sometimes like to call “edge”. If there’s any self-doubt, he doesn’t show it. This is a young man comfortable in his skin, secure in the knowledge that he belongs in the highest echelons of the game.
It’s a far cry from individuals like Loots Bosman, who forever looked over their shoulder when they played for South Africa. The last time I saw him, over a cup of tea in Bangalore a decade ago, he spoke disarmingly about his struggles, and how he felt he was judged by different standards. With him, the ugly “quota” label was never far away.
More than the selectors or his teammates, the most pressure came from the legends of South African cricket, many of whom never saw the need for transformation, despite the national side having been almost lily-white in the years following readmission. In the new South Africa, they couldn’t always be open about their biases but they missed no opportunity to put the boot in.
Bosman was part of the playing XI when South Africa went up against West Indies in Jaipur in the semifinal of the Champions Trophy in 2006. With the Asian sides knocked out on pitches that had some early season freshness, South Africa were one of the favourites to win the tournament.
But on a surface where the ball didn’t come on to the bat, Bosman, picked for his ability to give the ball a good thump early on, struggled with his timing. In the face of some tidy bowling from Ian Bradshaw, Jerome Taylor (hat-trick hero against Australia) and Dwayne Bravo, Bosman and Jacques Kallis laboured through 11.3 overs to add 38.
During the commentary, one of the greats of South African batsmanship was so scathing about Bosman’s effort that I started getting messages asking whether I was aware of what was being said. The team’s media manager sat fuming a few seats away from me. Now, here’s the thing. Bosman made 39 from 58 balls. Kallis eked out 16 from 38. One man was playing his fourth one-day international, the other his 238th. No prizes for guessing who was criticised more.
Things were no different for Hashim Amla in the early days, before he became one of the world’s most prolific batsmen. But after the pioneering stints put in by him and Makhaya Ntini, the current generation has it a lot easier. At least on the surface.
But each time the team loses, and that’s been more often in the post-Kallis-Smith era, the old voices sing the same tune. South African cricket is being held back by transformation. Players aren’t being picked on merit.
Of the XI that played at Newlands last week, four were men of colour. Amla is only one of the greatest batsmen cricket has seen. Vernon Philander is peerless in seam-friendly conditions. Keshav Maharaj is the best spinner South Africa has produced for some time. And that leaves us with Rabada, now the number one-ranked Test bowler in the world. All of 22, he has 110 wickets from 24 Tests. His strike-rate (39.2) betters that of Dale Steyn, Malcolm Marshall, Waqar Younis and most of the game’s legends. He has also done that while bowling extremely fast. This isn’t a medium-pacer capable of ratcheting it up on occasion. To echo Graeme Smith, he bowls rockets.
With the exception of Australia, who will bring Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins here in March (fitness permitting), Rabada would waltz into any team in the world. England would have rolled out the royal red carpet for one bowler with such pace and accuracy in the recently concluded Ashes series.
A generation after the embarrassment of a nearly all-white team travelling to India for the first post-isolation matches, the dressing room truly reflects changing times. And just as Ntini inspired the current generation, so there will be a whole host of Rabada wannabes for South Africa to call on a decade from now. The old fogies will just have to bear it, even if they don’t grin.