Kagiso Rabada: "No matter where you are playing, you want to hit the top of off stump." © Getty Images

Kagiso Rabada: “No matter where you are playing, you want to hit the top of off stump.” © Getty Images

Kagiso Rabada is the sort of youngster whose progress you want to monitor closely. Ever since he made headlines in South Africa’s Under-19 World Cup win in 2014, he has risen through the ranks at a rapid pace. With a hat-trick on One-Day International debut and a 13-wicket haul in his sixth Test, Rabada, at 21, is the face of new generation pace bowling, and not just in South Africa.

Bought for Rs 5 crore by Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League 2017 auction, Rabada recently spoke to Wisden India about winning his maiden Test series in Australia, his own bowling and the quota system in South African team selection, among other things. Excerpts:

Before you came to India, South Africa were saved by the weather on the final day of the Hamilton Test against New Zealand, which meant that South Africa finished at No. 2 in the International Cricket Council’s rankings. Tell us about that day.

We were not in a good position, so it (the rain) was a blessing. We will take the draw with both hands. We didn’t plan for it to rain; it’s up to God. We were going to give it our all in trying to defend that day; it is not like we were scared. We knew we were in a tough position, and we knew we needed a miracle fight, and rain came. That’s our miracle.

How do you look at the price you were bought for in the auction?

It is obviously financial security. Unfortunately, we need money in the world. So in terms of that it is great to know that you can provide for you, your family and help others, also really invest it well to make more money. Hopefully, I can use it to help other people.

What did you hear about the IPL before coming here?

I was told that the IPL is very exciting and very adventurous almost. Very busy and frantic. I have been enjoying it so far. I have been told a lot about the travels, and told that it can be a bit tiring; sometimes things may not go as per schedule, so you have to be patient.

Paddy Upton, Delhi’s coach, on working with Rabada

It’s actually my first opportunity to work with Kagiso Rabada. We had not met before. It is only in India that we met each other personally. It is not about me telling him anything, it is more about me learning what works for Rabada, how he wants to be managed, what he is looking from the IPL and how as a coaching support staff we can help him deliver his potential over the next 12 to 13 games. He is a very, very exciting prospect. He is very competitive, very hungry. Obviously, he is a great bowler, he is very fit. In his first IPL, he will be looking forward to enjoying himself and putting in some good performances. It is nice that he has got some really nice international fast bowlers around him. Pat Cummins, they can work in tandem and share their knowledge with each other and with some of the other fast bowlers in the squad as well.

You had opted not to be a part of the IPL auction in 2016 and went on to play county cricket for Kent. What led to the change in stance?

I was a bit unsure last year. I wanted to make a better move for my career. So, I was not sure which one was going to help. In terms of (getting) rest and not over-bowling, I thought going to the county was better as I got a chance to go home instead of staying over (in between).

This year my mind was made up that I wanted to come to the IPL. First of all it’s a new experience and also obviously the financial part. And also you can pick a lot of players’ brains who have played the game for a long time.

You made your ODI debut in Bangladesh, played your first Test in India, and came here for the World Twenty20 last year. What have you understood about bowling in the subcontinent that will help you in the IPL?

I familiarised with the environment and knew what to expect, the kind of wickets, the players, the crowd, the Indian batters. Having played around the world against different players, I know what different players do. Playing in India during the World T20 in a high-pressure environment, I guess, has helped me to expect a lot of things I might not have factored for before coming here.

You have now played international cricket in six countries in a little over two years. Have you understood how to adjust your lines and lengths in different conditions?

Normally you want to be around the same area. No matter where you are playing, you want to hit the top of off stump. There will be minor adjustments in different conditions you go to. It’s all in the coach’s manual for the time you start in school. Nothing changes, it just the execution. Mainly the one thing that changes is analysing and trying to work the batsman out by exploiting their weaknesses. That’s the most important thing I have learnt coming into the international circuit. Line and length in different conditions, you learn about it in high school. Now basically you have to apply that using your mind to unsettle the batsman.

Against England in Centurion in January last year – your sixth Test – you said you were bowling short before changing your length, and it led to you finishing with 13 wickets. Is that the kind of on-the-job learning you are referring to?

Yes. Sometimes when you are not feeling good you might drag the ball a bit. There might be a technical issue as regards to why you are not getting the ball in the right area. So, I guess it’s about working it out, and trying to do it over and over again to gain some consistency. You don’t try and bowl short, it’s something that is not happening correctly. So you need to find the problem.

Did that Test match make you feel that you belong at this level?

There was no thinking of that. I saw getting those 13 wickets as something that was just happening for me. I felt like I was just bowling and I could get a wicket every single ball. These things start to happen when you are bowling well. Things happen. You don’t have to think about other things. Once you get 13 wickets, it’s a nice feeling, you feel happy about it. But life moves on, you can’t dwell on it too much. Definitely, looking back I would be proud.

Actually, in the Centurion Test match I didn’t feel that great to start off. I leaked quite a few runs and then something clicked, and then everything just happens. The only thing that as a bowler you can do is bowl the ball. Once it’s bowled, you have no control. So, its one of those times when you feel in control.

Kagiso Rabada: "You are here because you want to challenge yourself. Pressure to perform should liberate you and calm you down." © AFP

Kagiso Rabada: “You are here because you want to challenge yourself. Pressure to perform should liberate you and calm you down.” © AFP

You talked about working out a batsman. Give us an example.

Generally you have analysis before the game and have a team discussion on what you are thinking of bowling to a particular guy. Sometimes in a game you need to have an instinct of what the batsman is trying to do because he could do something totally different. Depends what his tempo is going to be. You basically adjust to the batter or sometimes you can set your own terms. Either you expand or retract like a parachute. You want to have an instinct and go with the flow.

It’s really simple. When you see a batsman is trying to hit you to a certain place, you will counter it. That happens every single time with all bowlers. You do it every game. Suppose when you see a batsman trying to hit you straight, you are not setting terms, the batter is setting terms. Now you have to adjust accordingly. You might bring third man up, drop long-on and maybe start bowling yorkers. Switch it up by bowling a bouncer or a slower ball. You cannot bowl a single (type of) ball. It is about going with the flow. If a batsman is defending you a lot then you as a bowler can set terms. You can have a really attacking field. When a batsman is playing and missing and is about to nick, you put a slip in.

Is that last over of the Kanpur ODI in 2015 where you defended ten runs and got MS Dhoni out an example?

That’s an example. I was speaking to AB (de Villiers) at mid-off. I said yorkers are coming out nicely, feeling I should go with yorkers. AB said no, as at that stage Dhoni was getting underneath really full balls and hitting well. Our best bet was to go length as there was a bit of variable bounce. That’s what we did and it worked. It was one of those moments.

You are seen as the face of next generation of fast bowlers, but you come at a time when the intensity of three-format cricket is at its peak and bowlers are breaking down like never before. You have a naturally athletic body, but do you worry about being injured?

It is something you should take into account. It is something that you can’t ignore. So I take a lot of advice on how I can maintain a strong body. At the end of the day, it all lies on you the person. So you need to decide what is best for you and work out what is best for you.

Bowling is about feel. If you feel that your back is getting sore, it is just not the right feel. There is something that is not right. You want to get into a rhythm where you feel that the little things are clicking in the right place. You want to get into a rhythm where you feel that you can bowl quick without over-exerting your body. It is about trying to get those mediums – when to bowl quick, when not to bowl quick. Rest. You don’t want to bowl too much for the sake of bowling. It is a whole lot of combination. It is not just one thing.

“Bowling is a lot about emotion. Makhaya Ntini was a happy guy, Dale Steyn gets pumped up. It’s natural for bowlers to get emotional. It’s a cliché thing that they get angry. You should not get frustrated. When you are angry at the batsman, it is you who are getting frustrated.”

Have you found your medium?

I would say that I am finding it. I am not sure if a day will come when I will say I have found the answer. However, I will keep making inroads.

Do you have a fixed number of balls that you bowl in a day while training?

I bowl until I feel I am ready for the game. When I was younger, I would probably bowl more because I used to make the same mistakes, but I did not know what I was doing wrong. You want to feel good going into the game. Otherwise you need to trust your talent and go in there. However, the older you get the more you learn and the quicker you can fix things. I feel like I have come a long way in terms of that. That can make your life easier. Instead of practising hard, practise smart.

Are you a gym person or do you believe in bowling to keep yourself going?

You need to do both as I am a rhythm bowler. Gym in the off-season when you can, but when it is time to play you don’t really have to do too much because you are playing.

You have 150 international wickets so far, which one do you cherish the most?

I can say, may be the ball to (Usman) Khawaja (against Australia in the first innings of the first Test in Perth last year) because I had not been feeling well. So all those emotions just came out. It was just emotion of affirmation. You must stick in there, hang in there.

I didn’t have a great one-day series when Australia were there (at home). I had a bit of doubt, which is normal, but I didn’t give up. So it’s really important not to give up. I got to Australia and obviously the Aussies love to talk in the media. They said they are going to target me in the bowling. I didn’t mind it, but then it motivated me more. It’s not that it affects me much, but it motivated me. I went on to bowl but didn’t have any wickets (till the 41st over of Australia’s innings). So when I got my first wicket, that’s when the time came and you know just the emotion of affirmation that anything is possible. Hang in there, I was just hanging in, hanging in. You have to fight a lot of demons when you play, but you just have to hang in there. That’s true emotion.

What kind of battles do you usually fight inside your head?

It’s countless. It is just not succumbing to a whole lot of pressure, not succumbing to what everyone expects from you. It is about challenging yourself. You are not doing this to impress anyone. You are here because you want to challenge yourself.

Pressure is always there. You need to turn it to something good. You should not allow it to paralyse you. Pressure to perform is the main one. It’s a battle against self. You shouldn’t be paralysed by it. It should liberate you and calm you down.

On getting Dhoni out in Kanpur

I was speaking to AB (de Villiers) at mid-off. I said yorkers are coming out nicely, feeling I should go with yorkers. AB said no, as at that stage Dhoni was getting underneath really full balls and hitting well. Our best bet was to go length as there was a bit of invariable bounce. That’s what we did and it worked. It was one of those moments.

Does anger drive pace bowlers?

Bowling is a lot about emotion. (Makhaya) Ntini was a happy guy, Dale Steyn gets pumped up. It’s natural for bowlers to get (emotional). It’s a cliché thing that they get angry. You should not get frustrated. When you are angry at the batsman, it is you who are getting frustrated, bringing unnecessary emotions to yourself.

Winning a Test series on your first trip to Australia must have been a special feeling …

We felt really good, because as a team we went down all the way to No. 6. We had a team culture meeting where everyone put everything on the table. It was before the season. We were basically honest with each other. We have got a very good team environment. We set ourselves our goals and it was great because our plan was seen in action.

AB de Villiers recently spoke about this meeting. He said that you discussed everything including the sensitive topic of quota. As someone who represents a certain section of the society, what is your take on it?

I feel it’s getting better. Because of what happened in the past people are trying to bring an equilibrium. So, it is very fickle because some people feel they are not being given fair chance, while others feel they have been restricted and deserve a chance. So it is fickle. It is all about working it out. Is it the right way to do it? I don’t know. I think that people who haven’t got opportunities should have access, but I do believe they should be picked on merit. However there should be a conscious effort to help those who don’t have access, but you should be picked on merit.

Also read: Beyond the boundary – Transformation in South African cricket

Every team has a strike bowler while others bowl around him. But South Africa is unique. You have Steyn, when available, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel for company; and all of you are capable of running through sides on your own.

Basically you try to keep it simple. That’s what everyone tries to do. You are right; we have got a lot of wicket-takers. I think we see it as a strength. We want to be balanced bowlers. Again it is about contracting and expanding, going with the flow, seeing what is happening, having a gut instinct of what is required for the team.

With inputs from Saurabh Somani.