What would the ideal next 24 months look like for Kagiso Rabada?
“To remain at number one.”
The answer is given with no hesitation. There’s no need for eloquence here. Once you have dedicated your life to becoming the best any other response would be insufficient.
The man we affectionately call KG is adored universally. Not only for his dominance with the ball but also for his humility, which makes him easy to cheer for. Someone we can all relate to. Even cleaning out Cricket South Africa’s house of all its awards this month couldn’t endanger that perception.
Nothing, however, is humble about his ambition or dedication to the game. You can’t ascend to the top of the Test rankings if you allow either to be tainted by internal modesty.
“It is an obsession,” Rabada says in the empty media room at the top of Wanderers Stadium. “An obsession to want to be the best. An obsession to want to master a particular skill. An obsession to keep challenging yourself. An obsession to want to compete. To be the best at a personal and team level.
“It’s very competitive and I enjoy what comes with it; the challenges that you have to overcome. You’re playing in different cities, different conditions. There’s always a challenge, always a way the game can humble you.”
It’s clear that being the best is a constant motif in the pacer’s life; one worthy of his imposing stature. Not until you’re up close can you quite appreciate his domineering frame and taste a minuscule sample of what batsmen might experience as they gaze down the crease.
At the bullring, a handful of ground staff work away with rakes on the grass and skeleton staff are scattered behind the deserted seats. It was at this stadium that Rabada’s Proteas cemented a historic win barely three months ago, beating Australia to clinch a 3-1 series win, the first over the old foe since readmission.
Cricket almost became the victim in those few weeks as the media conveyor belt delivered endless scandals and off-field intrigues. Until Cameron Bancroft absurdly took sandpaper to ball, the main distraction was KG locked in a hearing and fighting for his right to play. The International Cricket Council (ICC) didn’t enjoy his shoulder shove on Steve Smith and dished out triple demerit points.
Although the appeal was successful, it wasn’t difficult to find someone loaded and ready to discuss the overzealous nature of Rabada’s celebrations. AB de Villiers even suggested the team needs to “get to” him after a wicket to prevent further damage.
“I learnt to relax and not to step over the line,” he says of the incident. “To acknowledge that there are rules and for me to understand them and on a personal level to react better to certain situations.”
It wasn’t the first time the sport’s body took exception to his behaviour. Last year July, the fiery fast bowler was given a Test match ban after his yell chased Ben Stokes off the field.
Putting cricket’s genteel gentleman’s rules aside for a moment, Rabada’s exuberance is a marvel for the spectator. His eyes turn maniacal as they bulge out — a death stare delivered to no one in particular. Every muscle in his body seems to become taut as though an invisible barbell was suddenly thrust on to his shoulders.
But it still seems as though there’s more. That if it was purely up to his inner essence he would lose jurisdiction over his actions.
“I do let go,” he acknowledges. “I don’t feel like I lose all my control … otherwise who knows what could happen. But I think I need a bit more control. I just let my passion out, especially if it’s a good wicket, a big player, or in the context of the game, or in the context of how you have been playing. Sometimes I am happy but I wouldn’t show a lot of it. Other times I feel emotion that just overwhelms me and the passion comes out. Sometimes I just smile. I don’t control that; it just controls me.”
He’s hardly a rare case in this regard. It’s the necessary nature of professional fast bowlers, particularly in Tests. Only those able to operate at peak physical and mental levels for hours on end will thrive in the format. A little derangement is a prerequisite at elite level.
In that same rebuke, De Villiers spoke of Dale Steyn and the look of madness that consumes him after a wicket.
Rabada agreed that there is no underestimating the effect such zeal can have on team morale and drive.
“As a fast bowler, you’re running in and you’re using a lot of energy and it’s a high-intensity movement in front of a pressured situation, in front of a crowd. Adrenaline is on a high. Bowlers are mostly hyper and there’s a lot of emotion behind it. The emotion is definitely contagious.
“I think it’s my driving force. I think it’s every sportsman’s driving force. You have to have a passion for something.” Rather than shut himself off to it, Rabada wants to hone the intensity to a more distinct level, to refine it into a commodity that he can use to build his game.
Although he obviously wants to avoid incidents that could give the ICC ammunition for further castigation, he recognises that fervour is the elixir of his ability. Only 23, he has already developed a temperament that enables him to feed off hostile opponents and crowds instead of falling into their pool of intimidation.
“It can only make you more competitive if someone doesn’t like you,” he says. “But it’s never nice. I mean I’m not going to act all tough; it’s never nice. But when it gets to that point of no return, it gets you even more motivated, even more inspired, and then often the best comes out of you because then all you’re focused on is trying to defeat your opponent.
“It brings the best out of me. I wouldn’t necessarily look for it because I am just trying to do my best. But once I get to that point, I feel my nervousness goes away and that’s when I wake up. I feel that wakes me.”
Rabada’s grand, restless ascent has been one we have devoured with glee. He’s already reached the top, the youngest bowler to do so. It’s no surprise when speaking to him that getting better is a constant in his language about his career — past, present and future.
Right now, he says, he has no plans for a leadership role unless required by the team. He doesn’t say it but you get the sense any such extra responsibilities would be a distraction, a distraction from doing what’s necessary, from being the most terrifying pacer in the game.
The 23-year-old possibly has the most misleading baby face you’re likely to see on your television. His humbleness is deceptive on the pitch.
In person his gentle eyes gaze calmly; on the field of battle they become an inferno, incited by a furious drive. Exactly where the frenetic ride might take him, and the national team, remains to be seen, but you get the sense that limits aren’t part of his lexicon.
“Belief, it’s all about belief. In yourself, in your processes, in what you can do. You should aim high. If you miss, at least you know you aimed high.”