JOHANNESBURG - Kagiso Rabada may not want to admit it but he is very much the leader of the South African attack that is hoping to take down Sri Lanka for the second time in Dambulla on Wednesday.
The 23-year-old is set to play his 50th One-Day International and while he is comfortably the most experienced member of the squad in Sri Lanka, he is not going to anoint himself its leader.
“I’ve not come to grips with that phrase, 'I’m the leader',” Rabada said on the eve of the second ODI. “I know I have a responsibility as an opening bowler. Out of all the bowlers (here) I have the most experience. In that way I am leading, (but) I don’t see myself as much of a leader. I have a responsibility to perform and if anyone wants help, I’m there to give out suggestions.”
The selectors certainly took a major chance in assembling such a young group of bowlers for the series, particularly in conditions with which many of them are unfamiliar. Rabada’s 49 ODI caps is still more than the combined total of the other six front-line bowlers in the squad, which adds up to 43 - 26 of those belonging to 22-year-old Andile Phehlukwayo.
While Rabada may not regard himself as their leader, in deed more than word, he has shown that it is he who sets the tone. It was his stunning opening burst last Sunday in which he picked up three wickets that provided the foundation for what was ultimately a comprehensive five-wicket victory.
Rabada found conditions that were very much to his liking after what he described as “sandpits” which were prepared for the Test matches. But it still takes a very good bowler to understand and then properly utilise those favourable conditions, which is precisely what he did when finishing with 4/41 in eight overs.
Perhaps more than most of his colleagues, Rabada’s place is virtually cemented for next year’s World Cup, which is why he can prioritise a series win in Sri Lanka more than they can as they seek to impress the selectors.
“I’m thinking about what is happening in this series, that is the priority,” he said. “Obviously you work towards the World Cup and you want to hit a certain level at a World Cup where you want to be playing at your best. Right now I’m thinking about playing here and how to be clear here right now.”
The selectors have to look at the bigger picture, however, and hopefully they will be clearer about who is likely to be on the plane for England next year at the conclusion of this series. But Rabada’s point about being successful in the present has validity, especially in terms of building confidence.
Players like Tabraiz Shamsi, Man of the Match in the opening encounter, and JP Duminy will certainly be feeling good about themselves and will want to build on their success from the first game. For the likes of Phehlukwayo, Wiaan Mulder and Aiden Markram, it will be a case of trying to heed the lessons of the first match and to try and deliver an improved performance.
Perhaps by adopting Rabada’s mentality, and thinking about the here and now, will help relieve whatever stress there is about World Cup places, which will help them deliver displays more in keeping with their talent and ability. Rabada wasn’t too worried about the Sri Lankans reverting to a pitch for Wednesday's encounter that tailors to their spin-bowling strengths.
“You need to apply different skills, bowl different lengths, it’s all about adapting,” he explained. “You don’t get wickets the same in the sub-continent as you do at home in South Africa.”
He is aiming to maintain the momentum in the second match. “It would be a massive advantage to be 2-0 up going to Kandy.” Today’s match starts at 11am SA time.