ICC Men's ODI World Cup 2019

Rabada stirs hope amid a nation divided

Fearsome quick Kagiso Rabada has become one of South Africa's most influential and inspirational figures. At the World Cup, he and his team could unify a disconnected country

Adam Burnett

28 May 2019, 08:49 PM AEST


Adam Burnett previously wrote for and edited at Inside Cricket magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and The Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK.

When the Proteas take on England to open the 2019 World Cup at The Oval in London on May 30, it will be precisely 25 years, one month and three days since South Africa's first post-Apartheid elections. That day, commemorated annually since as 'Freedom Day', was expected to mark the beginning of radical change across the Rainbow Nation, as the democratically-elected African National Congress (ANC) Party, with Nelson Mandela as President, took power.

A quarter of a century on, however, if the racial lines upon which the country was divided have faded at all, they have been traced over by economic ones. In a report last year, the World Bank listed South Africa as the world's most unequal society. Earlier this month, TIME Magazine used the World Bank's finding as the basis of its cover story, replete with a stark visual depiction of the separation between rich and poor (see image below). A day earlier, Bloomberg ran a feature detailing an estimated band of six thousand black Africans in Johannesburg who have resorted to scouring waste for recyclables as a means of financial survival. According to Statistics South Africa, more than half of the 76 per cent majority black African population lives below the poverty line (less than one per cent of white South Africans are below this line).

"The euphoria of the 'Rainbow Nation' is no longer," says former South Africa off-spinner Pat Symcox. "It's now real, and we've got to grind."

Even as the ANC resettles into its perennial position of power following the May 8 national election, complex questions around unemployment, education, public health and land reform persist. It is a bleak picture for a country still feeling the effects of a policy of segregation that officially ended before some of its most prominent personalities were even born.

One of those is Kagiso Rabada.

As South Africa continues to grapple with its societal problems, many from their younger generations are looking to their cricket team, and Rabada in particular, as a source of inspiration, and a sign that change is slowly happening; for the first time in history, the Proteas enter the World Cup with a black African as perhaps their best and most important player.

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By dint of age – and little, if anything else – Kagiso Rabada wasn't there for the most recent chapter of his country's chaotic World Cup story, in 2015. Rabada was a key player in the Proteas' charge to the Under-19 World Cup title the year before, taking 6-25 against Australia to announce himself to the world. It is merely hypothetical now, but had selectors picked him for the World Cup 12 months on, they might have avoided a story that brought with it controversy and consequence in equal measure. In the immediate aftermath of a devastating semi-final defeat to New Zealand, it emerged that the selection of Vernon Philander – who had been struggling with injury – over fellow paceman Kyle Abbott had been the result of a need to fulfil the team's quota system (a method employed for ensuring a fixed minimum of team members were 'players of colour'). South Africa lost a classic contest to add to their litany of World Cup nightmares, and a couple of years later, Abbott took a Kolpak deal to play in the UK.

From a South African bowling perspective, the four-year cycle since that World Cup has been about Rabada. Notwithstanding the ageless quality of leg-spinning whiz Imran Tahir, or the will-he-or-won't-he-retire saga of Dale Steyn, Rabada's emergence has been the central narrative for a team still trying to find its identity in the post Graeme Smith era. The right-arm quick from Johannesburg made his ODI debut a little over four months after that fateful semi-final and remarkably, he was the ICC's top-ranked bowler in the format inside two years.

Rabada has been an ace up the sleeve of skipper Faf du Plessis for four years // Getty
Rabada has been an ace up the sleeve of skipper Faf du Plessis for four years // Getty

At present, South Africa have two players ranked in the ICC's ODI top five for batting (Quinton de Kock fourth, Faf du Plessis fifth) and bowling (Tahir fourth, and Rabada fifth), though perhaps a more telling measure of Rabada's ability is the fact he is the only bowler in the world to have been ranked number one in ODI and Test cricket since the last World Cup.

"He is far and away the best fast-bowling talent we have ever produced," says Symcox. "I know we've had some amazing fast bowlers – I played with Allan Donald, I've watched Dale Steyn. Those are two of the greats. Obviously Shaun Pollock as well.

"But not one of them were as good as Rabada was at his age."

Through the same period, Rabada's emergence as a powerful and important figure in his country has been just as noteworthy as his on-field feats. In 2017, the prestigious New African magazine listed him alongside Elon Musk and Caster Semenya as one of South Africa's 14 most influential people. "Our criteria for 'influential'," explained Anver Versi, the magazine's editor, "… is applied to people whose work or activity has had some sort of transformative effect outside their main calling".

"He fills the shoes that (former black South African fast bowler) Makhaya Ntini did in that he's a real hero to many local black players coming through the system," says Symcox.

"He performs a heroic role in the townships, and in growing the unity of South Africa."

Rabada's influence in South Africa extends well beyond cricket // Getty
Rabada's influence in South Africa extends well beyond cricket // Getty

Rabada's transcendence of cricket has been noticed by those in the country's other high-profile sports. Since winning the 1995 rugby union World Cup, the Springboks have regularly been a source of pride in South Africa, rivalling cricket and football for national headlines. One of their star players, utility back Jesse Kriel, has witnessed Rabada's rise, and understands the impact he can have on a country still trying to break free from a troubled past.  

"He's definitely become an icon in South African sport," says Kriel, a 25-year-old who has played 40 Tests. "He's unbelievably popular, with what he's achieved at such a young age.

"For guys our age, it's been pretty special to see him do what he's done, and as South Africans, we're proud to bring his name up in conversation.

"Someone like Kagiso Rabada can bring hope to people living below that (poverty) line – give them dreams and aspirations.

"(He is) driving people in our country to wake up every morning with a purpose, and to make something of themselves.

"That's a special thing."

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Rabada is consistently at pains to point out that his was a comfortable upbringing, particularly when compared with so many of his compatriots. "I got the best opportunity that anyone in the country can get," he tells cricket.com.au. "I went to good schools with good facilities, so my talents could be nurtured. Everything was there for me."

The fact he comes from a well-to-do family – his father is a doctor, his mother works in asset management – has prompted some within South Africa to question his legitimacy as a true face of either the 'born-free' generation (those born post-Apartheid) or black South Africa. But while it is true that Rabada's story is not emblematic of the majority of black South Africans', there is a vast difference between representation and inspiration. Increasingly, he is embracing his ability to offer the latter, with his childhood motivations serving as reminders of the influence one person can have on others.

"For me, looking up to people who inspired me got me going to do something great," he reflects.

"Now, with what I've done regarding my cricket, I've been an influencer of many young kids, or whoever draws inspiration from sport.

"It really is key for young children to be inspired by people who are doing really well.

"Kids are inspired by seeing excellence."

Throughout his youth, Rabada had extended family living in townships, and during regular visits he noticed the "huge differences" between his and their existences. It gave him a sense of perspective others with his good fortune might have missed, as the realities of his upper-class education jarred with the snippets he saw of others.

"When I played (at school) there were players from under-privileged areas who represented the state's Under-13s team, and you'd realise what they had to do just to get to practice," Rabada remembers.

"Some kids have to wake up at 5am just to get to cricket that starts at nine. Some kids don't get good breakfasts. They don't have kits … Some kids don't have spikes, they just wear the shoes they wear every day.

"Even with coaching, kids are told, 'Just hit the ball'. They're basic needs that are hard to come by.

"The older you get, the more you actually realise what is happening."

Ponting's World Cup danger man: Kagiso Rabada

Recently, the Kagiso Rabada Foundation has been established, making the 25-year-old not only an inspiration to young South Africans but the provider of a tangible means of impacting society. The focus of the Foundation will initially be giving underprivileged children an avenue into cricket, but Rabada hopes to branch out into various pillars of education, with the overall focus on simply "creating opportunities".

"Growing up I was always taught to give back, and I feel a strong need to do that," he says.

"It's good for the community. I've seen what LeBron (James) is doing (with his Foundation), what (fellow NBA star) Dwyane Wade has done.

"When you see the top athletes in the world giving back, that's also a source of inspiration to do something, (instead of) just worrying about yourself."

With more than three-quarters of the nation black African, Rabada's popularity in South Africa is difficult to overstate. One Cricket South Africa representative said that while AB de Villiers' popularity exceeded all others from a global viewpoint, the batting superstar's fame is easily eclipsed by Rabada within the confines of their country.

Australian allrounder Dan Christian, who played alongside Rabada for Jozi Stars in last year's South African domestic T20 tournament, believes he has managed to do exactly what the country has been striving – though often failing – to achieve in the post-Apartheid era: take race out of the equation.

"He is a superstar over there, and he handles it really well; he's a respectful guy, and very humble, especially given his success," Christian says.

"He's the life of the changeroom as well – cracking jokes, singing songs, doing all sort of things. He's good fun.

"And I actually think he's a role model to all the kids over there – black, white – no matter what their backgrounds. The whole country seems to love him."

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"He's really strong, really fit, and he's smart. He's got a fast bouncer and a fast yorker – he's got it all. Once he crosses that line – we all think we're competitive, (but) he's on another level."

Australia's Pat Cummins last year summed up what makes Rabada the supreme fast bowler of the modern age. Steve Smith talked about the "heaviness" of the balls he bowls, Josh Hazlewood suggested he doesn't have a weak point, and just last week, World Cup skipper Aaron Finch picked him as the one rival player he would include in his squad for the tournament.

The young South African heads into the World Cup under the cloud of a back injury, but also with huge expectations from both within and outside his country; since the 2015 tournament, no player has taken more than Rabada's 306 international wickets (Trent Boult of New Zealand is second with 270). More pointedly, his dismantling of hosts and favourites England at Lord's two years ago, when he took four wickets (all caught in the cordon) in his first three overs to leave Eoin Morgan's side 6-20, provided a blueprint for overcoming the world's top-ranked ODI team.

Rabada took four wickets to rout England in an ODI at Lord's in 2017 // Getty
Rabada took four wickets to rout England in an ODI at Lord's in 2017 // Getty

The Proteas' return bout with England will be two years and one day after that lopsided win for the visitors, though the stakes will be considerably higher. Neither side has won a World Cup, and while England enter as highly-fancied favourites, South Africa's in-flux team will for once carry no such burden, with even de Villiers recently omitting them from his top four sides at the tournament.

They have however, crept back up to third (behind England and India) in the ICC rankings off the back of five consecutive ODI series wins. And while that streak was preceded by a 1-5 humbling at home to India, there is a growing sense that Faf du Plessis' side is well placed to perform strongly in England with what looks likely to be a bowler-heavy line-up. Critical to that will be a potential new-ball partnership of Rabada and fellow black African Lungi Ngidi, the youngest member of South Africa's World Cup squad and the country's leading ODI wicket-taker in 2018. The significance of that pair opening the bowling is not lost on Symcox.

"That's a huge statement politically and I think it's a great thing," he says. "We've moved into that space now where these guys are more than good enough to play (as opposed to merely fulfilling the quota), and they're heroes to many.

"This World Cup will be watched by millions (of South Africans) because of the influences of the Rabadas and the Ngidis – with these two young fast bowlers, it's really going to strike a chord in our community.

"This team has the ability to really unite South Africa."

Rabada and Ngidi could form a potent new-ball combination for the Proteas // Getty
Rabada and Ngidi could form a potent new-ball combination for the Proteas // Getty

Inevitably, the performance of Rabada will be pivotal to the Proteas' success. He has spoken about his fierce desire to be the best, and he believes "when you play against the best, that's when your game moves forward". In the World Cup, against the world's nine other top-ranked nations, he has that opportunity. His relatively brief playing history indicates he has the capacity to shine on the grandest stage, and Rabada insists that is no coincidence; the key matches and moments stir a fire within him. At times it has pushed him into dangerous territory, but that is a risk he believes he must take in order to produce the sorts of performances upon which he has established his reputation, and hopes to build his legacy.

"When the passion hits you, it hits you out of nowhere," he says. "It's not something that I can control. Emotion is a powerful thing. I'm hoping I can feed off some of that emotion at the World Cup.

"You can psyche yourself up as much as you want, but I think it has to hit you in the moment, and when it does, it gets the best out of you."

Rabada has lived through six of South Africa's World Cup disappointments, so he knows just how significant a breakthrough success would be to his countrymen.

"It would mean a great deal," he says. "South Africa has been such a contender over the years, and we've had such great players, but we just couldn't get over the line every single time.

"We definitely believe we can do it. We know what it would mean for the country. Hopefully it is this year."