“If anything, you want to adjust to the fuller side because the wickets are slow and can sit up. To start off, you have to hit your normal 6-7m length,” said Kagiso Rabada, offering a keen insight into bowling at this IPL. “And then in the backend, depending on the wickets slowing down or whether there is dew; you have to make the adjustments.”
Very few fast bowlers know UAE pitches as well as Rabada. It was in Dubai, six years ago, that he took a match-winning 6/25 against Australia in the semi-finals of the U-19 World Cup.
That class of 2014 holds a special place in the annals of South African cricket. It gave them the first world title since the 1998 ICC Knockout Trophy in Bangladesh. It also gave the world its first glimpse of Rabada, a tall, natural athlete with all the ingredients to become a successful fast bowler.
More than five years down the line, he is well and truly on course. At 22, he was the youngest ever to be ranked as the No.1 bowler in ICC’s Test ranking; at 25, he is already South Africa’s pace spearhead across all formats. Last week, he became the quickest bowler to 50 wickets in the IPL (27 matches) and he now leads the wicket takers list.
Add to that his chokehold on the Super Over—nine balls, nine runs and three wickets at this IPL and you can be forgiven for believing that Rabada can single-handedly put an end to Delhi Capitals’ 12-season barren run.
“With help from my bowling?” Rabada seemed far from flattered during a press interaction before Delhi Capitals’ match against Kolkata Knight Riders. “I think it has to be a team collective. We have had seven different Man-of-the-Matches, so we have match-winners galore. It just so happens I have the purple cap. That’s it.”
The tall fast bowler knows how to keep his feet grounded, having struggled through the hype that came right after their U-19 World Cup triumph. He went on to play for the Proteas within nine months but had to deal with murmurs of fast-tracking after his first four T20Is yielded only four wickets and an economy of nine per over.
The joy of taking 6/16 in his first ODI—the best ever by a bowler on debut—against Bangladesh and sharing the top wicket-takers’ position with Dale Steyn in a 3-2 ODI series win in India too proved short lived.
India dismantled South Africa on dustbowls in the ensuing Test series. Two wickets in his first three Tests and Rabada quickly realised international cricket was a long grind.
Thrust into the lead as Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander started getting injured one after another, Rabada tried to hold up one end as well as he could. A match haul of 13/144 at Centurion after losing the home series to England on return from India was the only silver lining in an otherwise grim 2015-16 season.
It was a turbulent time for South African cricket. They had just lost the World Cup semi-final, AB de Villiers wasn’t sure about his position and controversies over the players’ quota system kept recurring.
Through it all, Rabada kept grooming himself for his rightful place; with Philander retiring and Morkel choosing a Kolpak deal with Surrey, Rabada became the natural leader of South Africa’s fast bowling pack in 2018.
Consistently clocking in at more than 150kph, Rabada started adding more variation to his bowling in the shorter formats—cutters, slower deliveries and yorkers, especially wide of the batsmen. This ability to employ a deadly cocktail of deliveries has now become his signature. A great example is this IPL’s Super Over against Kings XI Punjab where he bowled a full-length delivery that swung in, followed by a quick bouncer, followed by a full delivery fired at the off-stump.
Two wickets from those three deliveries and the match was as good as won.
“I don’t plan to win, but instead I plan to execute to win, and I think I managed to do that well in the Super Over,” Rabada said after that match.
In the country where he first announced his arrival, Rabada is making everything count for him.
“The conditions have been quite tricky because we’re playing at the same venues,” he said. “But you know, you play on fresh wickets at certain times and sometimes on used wickets and they all play quite differently. I mean, Sharjah in the beginning was really flat and then it sort of slowed down and the par score went from about 210 to about 180.”
He pointed out that although UAE wickets are slow compared to India, “they are a different kind of slow”. “And then, in Dubai, the scores at the beginning were about 180 and they’ve sort of stayed the same. So now you’re getting scores of 170, 160. But it is a little bit different. I feel that there is some seam movement sometimes,” he said.
It is apparent not just from his performances in all formats of the game but also from the way he speaks that South Africa’s bowling leader has absorbed lesson’s worth a lifetime from his six years in international cricket.
“It’s about realising what works for you and also summing up conditions and bowling according to the conditions,” he said. “Also, trusting your strengths and using your strengths and seeing how your strengths can go with the conditions. And then, it’s just about push and pull, push and pull.”