The Proteas aren’t good. We knew that already. What we didn’t know was the extent to which they would be dragged down by the noise highlighting that fact.
Perhaps no one more so than Kagiso Rabada.
His three performances so far — not horrible but far below what he’s capable of — came almost exactly a year after the Mail & Guardian sat down with him for an extended interview.
Outnumbered as he was, his sheer size still cut an intimidating figure.
By then he had become a giant. In three months he had shoved Steve Smith, been banned for doing so, been partly pardoned in a Dali Mpofu media fest, had a front-row seat to Sandpaper Gate and earned the No 1 spot in the Test bowler rankings. Much to talk about then.
Towards the end of the hour we had together came the question one is quasi-obligated to ask all young sports stars: What are your dreams/aspirations/hopes/goals for the near and distant future? The question was unremarkable, but his answer was telling.
“To remain at number one,” he replied unflinchingly and without hesitation.
Having braced to hear something about helping the team grow and improve, which is what young sports stars are trained to say, the response startled me in the moment.
“ … and the World Cup, right?” I said unconsciously, filling in his blank.
“Yes, yes of course,” he quickly replied, suddenly remembering he would be attending his first in less than a year’s time.
The key takeaway here is not that Rabada has himself front of mind but rather that’s precisely where he needs to be if he wants to be the best.
The 24-year-old rose so quickly because he applied a single focus to his game. When he runs at the crease nothing else matters except the wicket.
Losing himself in the hysteria of a fallen batsman is a byproduct of every ounce of power being summoned to contribute to the effort.
This is a luxury he’s been deprived of at this World Cup.
It’s plain to see the dissonance around the Proteas. From criticism over recent results to the AB de Villiers debacle, it has spread through this fragile side, creating yawning cracks.
Rabada himself intimated as much before the West Indies wash-out on Monday: “There’s just been a lot happening off the field and we are just looking to clear that out of our heads.”
The comments come on the untimely revelation that a cavalier De Villiers so generously volunteered to come out of international retirement on the eve of the World Cup.
To what extent this and the general discontent that has floated over the heads of Cricket SA has affected Rabada and Co is unclear but something is holding back his performances.
Four wickets from three games at an average economy of 5.4 is far too tame from the man supposed to be a saving grace. Ahead of the event, he was marketed in the media as South Africa’s “weapon”.
We knew this team wasn’t very good but we clung to the hope that our stars would win out.
It was an irrational idea that went beyond Rabada and extended to Quinton de Kock and, to a lesser extent, Faf du Plessis.
De Kock similarly has been unable to deliver himself as the prince that was promised.
After an auspicious opening knock of 68, the man at No 2 has since fallen flat. Against India, in particular, he looked petrified from the get-go; Jasprit Bumrah booming down on him and Hashim Amla with predatory confidence.
Like Rabada, De Kock has intentionally not been burdened with excessive leadership responsibilities.
It’s not to say either will not put themselves on the frontline for the team — we saw that in the tunnel bust up with Australia — but both thrive when they’re left to execute their crafts without distraction.
Rubbing salt into the wound of Rabada’s inaction is that speed has been allowed to flourish —Bumrah, Jofra Archer and Mitchell Starc have already given us memorable hauls. The smart money would have been on Rabada being among them by this stage.
Thanks to the rain on Monday he lost one of his last chances to insert himself on an occasion of significance.
It was bad weather that knocked out the Proteas at the semifinal stage four years ago. At least then we
could come up with a reasonable excuse.