LONDON - Proteas pace bowler Kagiso Rabada shares his views on his upbringing, race and the quota system with former England captain Nasser Hussain ahead of the first Test between the two nations at Lords on Thursday.
Nasser Hussain: Let’s go back to the beginning. Why cricket?
Kagiso Rabada: I was nine and passing a rugby ball around after school. One of my friends said: ‘The coach wants you to try cricket.’ It started from there. I tried to throw the ball as quick as I could, then I learned you have to keep your arm straight.
NH: When did the fast bowling really kick on?
KR: I bowled quick ever since I started. With the bat I just try to smash it. Over the years my bowling took priority.
NH: Your dad’s a doctor, your mum is in asset management, and you went to a good school in Johannesburg. How important was that to your cricketing upbringing?
KR: Very important. My private school had all the facilities, which makes it easier. If I’d been to another school, I might have had to go through a few more ranks. But I was hungry to take the opportunity.
NH: You’re the standard-bearer for black South Africa. Does that put you under extra pressure?
KR: Not necessarily. You know people are looking up to you. But you just have to keep things simple. When you’re playing in high school, it’s just cricket, cricket, cricket. Then you know a bit more about what’s happening in the world. You’re forced to grow up. It takes you out of your comfort zone.
NH: Is it right your dad used to take you round the townships and you’d hand things out?
KR: That is correct. On Christmas Day, we’d go around with buckets of food and give to the people who didn’t have anything. It puts a smile on your face and on their face.
NH: If you did that now, would you be mobbed? Are there kids who want to be you?
KR: The ones who want to watch cricket, I guess! A lot of children aspire to be like many of the players in our team, but people who like my type of play, I guess they follow me with keen interest.
NH: A lot has been made of the quota system. Is the way you and Temba Bavuma are playing proof the system is working, or does more need to be done?
KR: It has helped getting players an opportunity. It doesn’t start at the top, it starts at grass-roots level and introducing children to the game. At the top it can get political, which I don’t like to get involved in. The most important is the grass-roots, because you’re unlocking so much talent that is wasted.
NH: It can also lead to a talent drain. Does it frustrate you to see all the South Africans in county cricket, with guys like Kyle Abbott (Hampshire) and Simon Harmer (Essex) in the wickets?
KR: Yeah, I think it’s a problem that needs to be solved. How it’s going to be solved, I’m not sure. People have their reasons why they want to leave: some for the money, some because they weren’t getting the opportunity. It’s their lives, so they can do that.
A lot of South Africans are very patriotic. It’s just that when it comes to crunch time, they have to leave. But that’s not their first choice. I think our best players will certainly be chosen.
NH: Your dad has said: ‘Your future cannot be summed up by bagging an IPL contract. Longevity in the game at the highest level is what you’re after.’ Is that how you feel right now?
KR: Yes, definitely. It’s an ongoing battle. There are lots of ups and downs, both on and off the field. A lot of it is mental and you have to work your game out. It can get stressful at times. But that’s why we play the game.
NH: In 2016, you bowled 200 overs more than any South African bowler. Fast bowlers are like gold-dust. Are you looked after well enough?
KR: It’s up to me to make sure I’m fit and get all the necessary advice. I’ll think about the advice, and do whatever I feel is right. As you get older, you realise how to package yourself. It’s all a work in progress.
NH: Could you be a victim of the quota system? You are going to play every game because you’re the best bowler, but when you need a rest the selectors will find it difficult because it will cause them a headache.
KR: Well, there’s a whole load of back-up. The transformation is working. Let’s look at it this way. Apartheid was abolished in 1994, so that means that people of my skin colour and people of ‘colour’ have the opportunity to play in various sports — names like Hashim Amla, Makhaya Ntini, Temba’s now there, and Andile Phehlukwayo. It’s going to benefit the generations ahead.
It’s the bigger picture. I feel, especially in my generation, that it’s very even. It’s a very fickle subject because if you’re a white player in South Africa it’s tough to try to understand why this is happening. Players like Kevin Pietersen have moved, fairly so, but it is what it is.
NH: Was Makhaya Ntini a driving force for you?
KR: I never looked at it that way. I never looked at myself as a player of colour. I know if I deliver, no one can look past me.
NH: Brilliant answer. Now, Dale Steyn, he’s a once-in-a-generation cricketer. Players like that are hard to replace. But they’ve found one in you. How does it feel that people have you down as the next Dale Steyn?
KR: He’s a great bowler, one of the greatest of all time. I like to be myself. I don’t want to be the next Dale Steyn, but I’d love to achieve what he’s achieved — and even more if I can.
NH: In your last Test against England you took 13 wickets. And in the recent one-dayer at Lord’s you bowled beautifully. You must be confident going into this series.
KR: I’ve learned to be fearless. If you don’t do well, so be it. I’ve got my plans in order. It’s not going to be an easy Test. England are a quality team, playing in their back yard. The guys are up for it.
NH: Whose brains do you pick?
KR: You can learn so much from anyone. A guy like James Anderson, he’s got such a good seam (position), swinging it in and away. A guy like Stuart Broad can nip the ball. Dale got 400 wickets doing one thing, because he’s got the pace. Then you go to the Subcontinent where the bowlers have got skill and different field placings. Australia like to keep things nice and simplistic. It’s seeing what other people do, gathering that information, then seeing what you can do with it.
NH: What areas can you improve on? Can you get even quicker?
KR: I would like to. We’ll see. I’m 22. I’m not sure when I’ll be at my peak — maybe 26.
NH: Do you have any self-doubt? You strike me as quite humble but also confident…
KR: There has been doubt, but it shouldn’t drag for too long. You have to pick yourself up. The key is, I’ll never stop trying.
NH: How much of a blow is it not to have Faf du Plessis here?
KR: He’s a magnificent leader. It’s not great that he’s not here. But he’s got to look after his baby, and he’ll be watching. Dean Elgar’s stepping in. He’s got a great attitude in the game, so that will rub off on everyone.
NH: Is a Lord’s Test a big deal for you?
KR: Yes, it is. When you’re young and watching TV, you see the guys walk through the Long Room and people clapping - it’s very traditional. And now it’s nice to be among it.