Sport

WORLD CUP BOOST

Pace ace Kagiso Rabada’s single-minded focus makes him a prized Protea

Pace ace Kagiso Rabada’s single-minded focus makes him a prized Protea
Despite a recent injury bowling star Kagiso Rabada is confident he will be ready for the Proteas’ T20 World Cup opening match on 3 June. (Photo: Gallo Images / Getty Images)

Despite being reported injured last week, Kagiso Rabada is raring to take the field and deliver a World Cup trophy for South Africa.

When news dropped last week that Proteas bowling ace Kagiso Rabada had returned home early from the Indian Premier League (IPL) owing to a “lower limb soft tissue infection”, there were immediate concerns about the national team’s T20 World Cup campaign – in more ways than one.

Fortunately, Rabada is certain he will be ready to steam in for the Proteas against Sri Lanka in their opening World Cup match at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in New York on 3 June.

“The only thing that matters is that I’m okay and that I’m making good strides to getting to the World Cup,” the mighty fast bowler told Daily Maverick.

“I’m not particularly worried, myself. No real concerns.”

Rabada has been South Africa’s bowling spearhead for most of his career. His missing the tournament would be a massive blow to the nation’s hope of silverware.

The other reason for the collective bated breath over Rabada’s return to play in the tournament is because, without him, the total number of black players in the 15-man Proteas squad is zero.

There are no strict guidelines proposed by Cricket South Africa (CSA) on how many black players must be selected for World Cups – it is judged on a season-by-season basis. However, in a country whose population is more than 80% black, more than a few eyebrows were raised when the squad was initially announced.

It’s therefore reasonable to assume that the pressure on the already weighted shoulders of the pace ace would intensify once news broke that he would be the only black representative at the World Cup.

Not so.

“I don’t feel any pressure of being the only black player in the team,” he said. “Not at all. I’m there to play cricket. You keep the focus on cricket and not on anything else.”

Single-minded focus

Having a single-minded focus on the task at hand, which is bowling as accurately as possible, is how Rabada ensures that he carries no external weight when he walks onto the field.

“The way that I do that is by feeling no pressure around this topic,” he said of being the only black player in the squad.

“I know that I haven’t been picked because I am black. If that’s the case, if I’m picked because I’m just a quota, then I’d rather not play.

“I don’t control who they pick in the team. Whoever they pick, that’s their job.

“The coach, and I’m not sure if the captain is involved, but I know the coach is the main one. He chose the team and that’s what we’re faced with. Now we just have to play some cricket.”

Kagiso Rabada

Kagiso Rabada. (Photo: Red Bull Content Pool / Gallo Images)

Although there has been noise outside the Proteas camp about the makeup of the squad, Rabada acknowledged that if it were internal, their chances of winning the tournament would be very slim.

“Going into a World Cup and thinking who should have been in, who should have not been in – already, if my mindset is around that, then that’s not a good place to start,” he said.

Flat pitches

The T20 World Cup is under two weeks away but the biggest T20 franchise league, the IPL, is still being played, with the final set  for Sunday.

The rate of scoring has shot up over the past two seasons. There have already been 41 team scores in excess of 200 this season and 37 in 2023.

Rabada, however, doesn’t think the bowler-bashing will carry over to the World Cup, hosted in the US and the Caribbean.

“I don’t know if the [IPL] scores will translate into the World Cup,” he said. “In India, a lot of those games are in favour of the batting team way too much.

“Looking at the Impact Player, what it does, there’s no fear in batters. They don’t have any fear of getting out and on such good wickets they can just swing.”

The Impact Player rule was introduced last season, allowing teams a 12th player that can be substituted into an ongoing match. In comparison, in 2022, before the new rule, there were only 18 matches with innings scores over 200.

“[Batters] have become better and they access more parts of the ground, but I think it’s just too unfair,” Rabada said.

“If you want to test a batter then put ­something in the wicket for the bowler.  Then we’ll see how good they are over a long period of time.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Kagiso Rabada loves Test cricket, while navigating testing times and standing the test of time

“Normally, in ICC [International Cricket Council] events you have wickets that generally favour both departments, so it’s pretty even there.

“I think they try to do that because [otherwise] it wouldn’t be cricket. You can rather call it ‘batting’ [instead of cricket].”

Cricket’s revolution in optimising conditions for batting to make the game more entertaining has seen many bowlers look like bowling machines, just delivering the ball to see how far the batters can smash it.

The elite bowlers, though, who can deliver regardless of the conditions, have become more valuable for their sides. Rabada is part of that elite category and therefore his participation at the T20 World Cup is important for South Africa… on and off the field.

World Cup goals

Astonishingly, this is Rabada’s 10th year of international cricket. He made his debut in T20I cricket in 2014 as a 19-year-old against Australia. Earlier that year he won the under-19 Cricket World Cup.

He quickly cemented his name in the senior national team, across formats. He has, however, only played a further 55 international T20 matches in the nine years that have followed, owing mainly to workload management.

The trajectory of his career, as he turns 29 on 25 May, could see him break several South African bowling records, including most Test wickets – which stands at 439, held by Dale Steyn.

Good health and the Proteas’ Test fixtures permitting, this is a realistic goal for the talented bowler.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Heaps of talent’ Rabada says of Maphaka, with the two quicks boasting many similarities

His ambitions, however, lie solely on team performances and delivering the nation its first senior national trophy. “The biggest one is a World Cup [win]. That’s the biggest goal,” he said. “God willing.”

Working hard behind the scenes is how Rabada envisions achieving his goals.

“For me, my goal is to be the best that I can be,” the big quick said. “Continue being the best that I can be, then everything takes care of itself.

“If a record is meant to be broken, then it will be broken but my career – and I’m so lucky – is to play cricket and compete and to play for my country.

“And to try and make sure we get on the right side of the result for the country.

“It’s always been about the country and playing for South Africa. That’s what it is, and being the best that I can be.

“Everything else is out of my control.” DM

This exclusive interview was facilitated by Red Bull.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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