Kagiso Rabada celebrates a wicket
© Getty Images

Talking Cricket

'When you play with emotion, that's when you become dangerous'

Kagiso Rabada talks about putting passion into his game, balancing instinct and technique when bowling, and how his IPL experiences might help him at the World Cup

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

Kagiso Rabada empties a sachet of sugar into his espresso. "It's going to be strong," he says. He goes on to talk about enjoying McDonald's, not doing too much gym work, not running too much specifically for fitness. Which leads him to muse that he perhaps needs to start paying a little more attention to his diet and to keeping fit. He doesn't want to go as far as to stop enjoying life like any ordinary young man of his age, with its complement of hanging out, music festivals, a few drinks.

We speak twice: first in Delhi, on a match day, in a cool hotel room where soft jazz wafts, as the city outside simmers at 44 degrees. He talks about running barefoot in the townships outside Johannesburg as a kid, and about his place in a modern, free South Africa, which turned 25 three days before. He teaches me how to correctly pronounce his first name, which means "peace".

A couple of days later, in Chennai, he walks out of a lift in yellow-and-black jungle-print shorts, a black cap and T-shirt. He says his stomach has been upset, but he asks for a macchiato nevertheless. Again, a sachet of sugar. Over the next 90 minutes, he talks cricket, revealing not just his grasp of his art but also a deep-thinking mind that is aware of what is happening outside the cricket bubble.

Michael Holding talks about once walking up to you and jabbing his finger into your stomach. "That thing was like a wall," he said. Do you pay a lot of attention to your fitness?
(Laughs). It is something I have done since school. I did rugby, athletics. I was always active in sports. For me, sports is fun. I just love the adrenaline, so it goes hand in hand.

"At the moment I don't really see myself as a captain. I am a leader, but I don't know to what extent"

Even as a child I was always really active. Whenever I was at my grandmother's house in Mamelodi [in Gauteng] in the townships, we would wake up at 7, roam the streets. You don't even brush your teeth, you walk around barefoot, come back at around 5pm. I was quite adventurous as a kid in that way. Then at primary school I started playing a whole lot of sport. I found out that I was good at them. That just got me into a mindset of achieving.

I feel like I go through phases when it comes to fitness. Sometimes I will be really good, sometimes I will be very average in terms of looking after myself. I just try to keep a balance. But I just can't be too disciplined and cut out sugar, cut out McDonald's - that's really hard. I gym, but at the same time I live life. I'll have some beers.

So you're okay with eating junk food once in a while?
I don't mind junk food at all. I'm trying to get better, to try keep a better balance. When we are playing cricket, there is not much time to gym, so you really want to gym when you have time in between. I haven't trained much for the past two months, since we have been playing a lot. The fact that we play cricket, the fact that we are bowlers, it helps you because you are running all the time.

Dale Steyn loves to run as a way of keeping fit.
That's where me and him are different. Dale would run and keep his stamina up. But I never run. I feel like I run when I bowl. In Johannesburg, at altitude, I've spent all my school and teenage years running, so I feel like I've just got natural stamina. Although now I feel like maybe I need to pay more attention [to training consciously].

What is it about fast bowling that you love?
I just love the thrill. I love the movement. When you are feeling good at anything, you just enjoy it. You enjoy that feeling, that adrenaline. That's what I love about fast bowling: when you are running in, it's nice and hot, you are feeling good, your body becomes warm and you are really working, working well. Most times you are not working well and you just have to find a way. But once you get that feeling, when you are feeling good and it is working, I love it.

You could be playing in a club game or a game for your state. When everything clicks, it feels really great. Those feel-good endorphins, that adrenaline, it is a feeling that does not come all the time.

Rabada plays football with Dale Steyn in Galle

Rabada plays football with Dale Steyn in Galle © Getty Images

How do you create that intensity in the second spell, and later in the day?
You approach every spell the same, although your energy levels might be different, the situation might be different. Situations can spur you on. You just want to start off on a good note. You don't want to really give the batsman anything free; you want him to work hard for the runs.

Was it like that in the second Test against Australia in the 2018 home series?
That series had so much emotion. There is emotion within the team space because of the magnitude of the series, because of what has happened in the past, because of what has happened in the first Test, all the words and all the sledging going on, and you want to prove a point.

When you play with emotion, that's when players become dangerous. And that's when we, South Africa, I feel, become dangerous. Once we play with emotion and we aren't so neutral [we become dangerous] - neutral in the sense that we are going to play this game and we want to do well and we want to win; no more than that.

Can you define fast bowling?
Fast bowling is almost like an art. The movement. The athleticism. The best fast bowlers in the world, a lot of them are good athletes. It is about figuring the batsman out. It is about running in, putting the hard yards in. It is about setting the tone for the team. I believe the bowlers set the tone for the team.

"Towards the end of 2018, I went through a mental battle. I did not feel 100% at all: I felt tired. I just felt out of sorts. That was the toughest part of my career, but it didn't look like it"

What's the right balance between technique and instinct for a fast bowler?
You need to have a pretty decent balance. I don't think I will ever get to a stage where it would be 50:50. I think I will always be more of an instinctive player than technical - around 60:40. Having the balance is the perfect scenario, and that is what you strive for.

Being technical is about breaking the game down and about sticking to a particular game plan, and then your instinct will kick in at some point and you just back it. Technical side of things is all about doing something that you have thoroughly thought about, whereas instinct is thinking on the spot, having a particular feeling. You can't neglect that. But you need a balance of both.

To excel at fast bowling over a period of time, Holding says a fast bowler needs to have a nice, smooth, rhythmic run-up; a controlled action; and control at the point of delivery. He rates you 9 out of 10, and thinks your action can become smoother. Do you agree?
I agree with him. When I am at my best, I don't know what I am doing. I am constantly looking for that feel. So that is why I am working on the technical front. The more understanding I get, the more I can play close to my best in every game.

Do you work on fine-tuning your run-up?
You need a really good run-up to be a fast bowler. I'm still working on mine.

It is just about the feel - what feels right in terms of catching a rhythm. Having said that, because it is important, I am starting to get a bit more technical about it. Just working on certain cues to make it more consistent, so you are attacking the crease more properly. If you work on feel solely, it can be inconsistent.

Is there a spell where you ran in smoothly and it all fell in place?
At Centurion, in the [2016] Test against England. Also we played an ODI in 2017 in Southampton. Both those matches, I felt really good. I ran in beautifully, executing my deliveries, and I was really, really good at the death. I had no doubts about my run-up, no doubts about my action. The ball was just coming out smoothly. It is rare that you feel that way. There's plenty of games where I've gotten five-fors, four-fors and I haven't felt great. So you've just got to find a way.

"That's what I love about fast bowling: when you are running in, it's nice and hot, you are feeling good, your body becomes warm and you are really working well" © AFP

You made your Test debut in India at 20. India won that series 3-0, on turners. How did you deal with the challenge of steaming in on pitches that offered nothing?
It wasn't a great experience, both for me and the team. But we had a really long series in India - we beat them in the T20s, we beat them in the ODIs. So we were glad about that. But the Test series was played on shocking pitches. If you look at the first game, it was 200 v 200 in the first innings for both teams. If we had batted first, it would have been a whole different ball game. We have never batted in conditions like those ever.

As a fast bowler there was no bounce, no pace. There was some reverse, which we tried to work with. You just had to make the best of it. So I ran in, tried my best, tried to find a way. Cricket 101: if a pitch is slow and low, just bowl wicket to wicket. The ball is going to reverse. Wicket to wicket.

How did you learn to get the ball to reverse at such a young age?
Reversing is very easy, actually. Instead of the ball going towards the rough side, it goes towards the heavier side, the shinier side. So you just get your radar on point and play with it. It is not that hard. Of course, you need to know when to bowl the delivery, the innie or the outie, but it is not that hard.

Do you need a lot of pace for it?
Not really. Look at Vernon Philander. But it does help if you have pace, as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Mitchell Starc have shown.

What kind of ball do you prefer bowling with?
Generally for me it is just about the ball feeling nice in my hand. I spoke to Dale Steyn. He talked about liking a ball that felt small in his hand. I spoke to Polly [Shaun Pollock], who, I think, liked a ball that was a bit uneven so it got a bit of wobble. Others have talked about the seam - seeing if the stiches are close together.

Do you care whether it is a Dukes or a Kookaburra?
It is nice bowling with a Dukes because it seams more, swings more, stays hard. But I don't know whether a Dukes can reverse as much as a Kookaburra.

"I feel transformation should happen at the grassroots. At professional level players should be picked on merit. For me, transformation is all about getting opportunity"

Is pace a go-to weapon for you, including in limited-overs cricket?
Pace will always be an advantage because it gives the batsman less time to react to the ball, especially if it is doing a little bit. But batsmen can counter that - they have options, especially in the first Powerplay. So it is about using your pace but trying to get the ball in good areas, having studied the batsman. Setting the right field is important too, because batsmen are exploring more gaps all the time. It is not about just running in with a traditional field. But I wouldn't say I try and up the ante. More often than not, you are bowling at your quickest anyways.

If you bowl at 150kph against the best batsmen, like Virat Kohli, Steve Smith or David Warner in Test cricket and they miss or find it hard to counter, does that help? Are you able to sense their discomfort and turn it to your advantage?
Yes, of course. I remember I bowled a spell [in the second innings] to Warner in Port Elizabeth. The ball was swinging late and there was a bit of a nip. I sensed he was a bit uncomfortable. You just have to be relentless.

Since your debut, how have you improved at setting up a batsman?
The more you play, the more you learn about how differently batsmen play: whether they are off-side or leg-side players or they like to play both sides. You also see how similar someone is to another person.

On the day, it is about getting a sense of what is happening and taking the game plan into the match, and from there just adapting to what you feel without altering the plan too much.

Can you give us an example of a time where you set up a good batsman?
Take the last over against Dhoni in 2015. [In the first match of the ODI series in India, where Rabada successfully defended 11 runs in the final over, picking up two wickets and India lost by five runs.] Myself and AB [de Villiers], by assessing the conditions, we decided that hard length was the way to go and it worked. It was the same in the Super Over [this IPL, for Delhi Capitals against Kolkata Knight Riders]. I made an assessment myself that I was just going to go yorkers and it worked. It is about backing what you are doing.

Against Warner in Port Elizabeth:

Against Warner in Port Elizabeth: "I knew exactly how I was going to get him out and that is exactly how I got him out" © Getty Images

In Test cricket which do you think is your best spell?
The most planned spell, I guess, was against Warner in PE in the second innings. When I went out there, there was a bit of swing and I felt the wicket had quickened up. It was not like you plan it, but you just have a sniff. I knew exactly how I was going to get him out and that is exactly how I got him out. It was a big moment, that wicket. That whole Test match was a comeback Test match for us, so it was a big moment to ensure our victory.

What about that Centurion Test against England, where you got your career-best figures and your first Man-of-the-Match award in international cricket?
It will always be special because I got my first ten-for in Test cricket. We also did not want to lose the series 3-0. Making it 2-1 was a consolation, and I was extremely happy. When the match is on the line, that is when you need to produce.

You came second behind Kohli for the ICC's Player of the Year award for 2018. He also beat you to the title of the Test Player of the Year award. How big was that recognition?
That is a huge honour. Kohli undoubtedly deserves it. He has been phenomenal. He has been a pillar for Indian cricket over the past five years. You can't fault the guy.

It is not something that you play for, but if an award of that calibre comes your way, it is great. I feel very honoured to be talked about as the best cricketer in the world without the distinction of being a bowler or a batsman. It is not something that I always think about, but when I do think about it, it gives me goosebumps. At the end of the day I am worried about my craft, I am worried about improving, and I am worried about my team winning.

Sitting here, you are like someone who's having their portrait painted, but on the field you often show a lot of emotion. Can you talk about this transformation?
I will say I like to remain calm in games as well. I only show emotions when it is necessary. When I am faced with a massive challenge, that is when you'll see my emotions come out. That's just my passion coming out; it just shows what it means to me. I guess it is good to express your emotions - it is something I should do a lot more. It is just learning about yourself, seeing how improving yourself can benefit you as a person, as a player.

"All those demerit points I have accumulated have come from minor instances. It is just an outburst of emotion at particular times. It is in a bowler's DNA, really"

Speaking about expressing your emotions more - can you expand on that?
In a nutshell: basically, what would benefit me more? Celebrating wickets, celebrating my success more, instead of worrying about the next game instantly. At the end of the day you need to benefit yourself. I am a very easygoing person, but I am highly critical of myself at the same time.

Last year I learned that you shouldn't get frustrated if you feel you are not making too much headway. Focus on the little achievements that will contribute to the bigger ones. Focus on your strengths. That makes you happier as a person, instead of just being in a mode where you feel you are reaching for something but you just haven't got it yet and you just want to keep going at it.

So what can help me? Showing emotion in a good way - will it help or not? How can I get myself less frustrated? How can I get myself more motivated? Making sure you are always ticking along and feeling good about yourself instead of overly criticising yourself. That comes with experience.

Last year you had a good year. At what point did you have these thoughts?
Towards the end of 2018, after I came back from injury and a bit at the beginning of [this] year as well. I went through a mental battle. I did not feel 100% at all: I felt the ball wasn't coming out [well]. I felt my action was a bit everywhere. I felt tired. I just felt out of sorts. That was the toughest part of my career, but it didn't look like it. I focused on telling myself, "It's all right. Just be happy about the smaller achievements."

At the same time, I didn't stop living my life. Go out, have a bit of a party. I went to [music] festivals, hung out with people my age, instead of being serious the whole time, conforming to the way that you are supposed to act around particular people [who are judgmental]. "Look at what he's doing. Why is he doing this?" That kind of thinking gets to me. People are different. You are not hurting anyone [by doing things the way you do]. You are not wasting your life. Then what's the problem?

"When you give it back to Kohli, he gets angry. Maybe he does it because it gets him going, but that comes across as very immature for me" © AFP

Coming back to cricket, what goes through your mind when you are hit for runs? What is your first thought?
The first thought is: how am I going to stop this, and how am I going to get him out or just let him get himself out? It also depends on how I am feeling. Learning how to deal with different types of situations comes with experience.

Let us talk about the last IPL match you played - Delhi against Royal Challengers Bangalore. In your first over, Parthiv Patel and Kohli hit you for a four each. Kohli and you had a short exchange. What was going through your mind?
I was just thinking about the game plan, really, but Virat, he hit me for a boundary and then he had a word. And then when you give it back to him, he gets angry. I don't get the guy. Maybe he does it because it gets him going, but that comes across as very immature for me. He is a phenomenal player but he can't take the abuse.

But those things can't distract you. In fact, for me it just wakes me up, if anything. If somebody comes at me and says, "I'm going to hit you. I'm going to clobber you. You are soft", it wakes me up because - it's a fight-or-flight response.

In the next over you bowled with a bit more pace into Kohli's body, and he found it hard to get away. Did that exchange rev you up to come back hard and push him onto the back foot?
You have to think about what you are going to do, because the wicket was good. All it was was a verbal fight. Something like that will not distract me. If anything, it is just going to wake me up to hit my areas a lot more consistently.

But later that evening, on the bus back to the hotel, I asked myself: "That guy [Kohli] always seems to be angry on the field. Is he really angry?" Then I thought to myself what it would take for me to become really, really angry. That is going to happen very few and far times in between. And becoming angry like that - is that what gets him to play well? Do you know what I am saying? I can't psyche myself to be angry.

"When I was at my grandmother's house in Mamelodi, in the townships, we would wake up at 7, roam the streets. You don't even brush your teeth, you walk around barefoot"

You have accumulated a few demerit points in recent times. Do they actually work in curbing the behaviour they were brought in to stop, or do teams use them tactically, to stir up opponents who are carrying demerit points?
I don't know, man. All those demerit points I have accumulated have come from minor instances. It is just an outburst of emotion at particular times. It is in a bowler's DNA, really. Unfortunately we are playing in an era where those things are being looked at now and you have to watch yourself. You have to think a bit more about what you do.

It is just the emotion of a getting a wicket. You have worked so hard at it and finally you are getting a wicket. It is not that you are going to the batsman and you keep talking to him and you are fighting.

Like, a demerit point is given if you are screaming in a player's face. But if you look in the past, that was done so much. These days you can't get away with that. There can't be any contact. I don't know if you saw the incident with Steve Smith - it was a brush of a shoulder, literally. That was a demerit point. You are just not allowed to touch the player in any way, and the burst of emotion can't be [directed] at the player. When that impulse comes, you just need to be aware of what you are doing. That is what I have learned.

Emotion has a place in sport: is that your message to the administrators?
That is a whole other conversation. Look at any sport - there's always a bit of conflict. It is not like people are trying to fight. The demerit points system is there and you should know where you stand. They are basically saying you can get away with it if you are careful. They are trying to not tarnish the image of cricket. They are saying, [handle] it in another way, the burst of emotion. But I feel [the demerit-points system] eliminates the competitiveness of the battle.

Let us talk about that Super Over against Kolkata Knight Riders again. Knowing that Andre Russell was going to be batting, what did you tell your team the plan was?
I told Ricky Ponting and James Hopes [Capitals head coach and bowling coach respectively] my plan was to bowl yorkers. I told them my field. It made sense and they said, "Back it."

"I am a very easygoing person, but I am highly critical of myself at the same time" © Getty Images

Prasidh Krishna, who bowled the Super Over for Knight Riders, took the pace off the ball. So why were you confident about yorkers?
It just about the feeling. And the way you read the game. There are many ways to get the job done. You will be criticised if you don't get the job done - whether you bowl slower balls or yorkers.

Your first ball Russell hit for a four, though there were four fielders on the leg side.
It was a low full toss that he just timed. Then the fielder ran the wrong way. It happens in cricket. At that moment I thought, "That is not a good start", but I just told myself to stick to my plan.

The first two balls were around 144kph. The third was 147kph and uprooted the middle stump. It was another yorker. Was it a conscious decision to bowl quicker?
(Laughs) You can't control the pace [so finely] - whether you bowl 144 or 147. I am not a wizard, man. I try and bowl quick enough, or as quick as I can. But I don't trust the speed gun. I trust my eye more than the speed gun.

How do you get clarity of mind in a high-pressure situation like that?
It comes from feel. It also comes from what you are good at and from experience. The more you play, the more you know what to do. If I had to bowl that over when I was 19 and had only started playing international cricket, maybe I would have seen the situation differently. I would have dealt with it based on my past experience [at that point] or I would have done what someone else had recommended. But I just went with what I wanted to do. That's important, to be clear and not be iffy in your run-up.

Russell said bowlers fear his attacking batting. Do you reckon batsmen respect and fear you?
I don't know what they feel. I am just focused on how to get them out and my game. I don't really care how they feel.

Rabada made his Test debut in India in 2015-16 in a series South Africa lost 0-3.

Rabada made his Test debut in India in 2015-16 in a series South Africa lost 0-3. "Cricket 101: if a pitch is slow and low, just bowl wicket to wicket. The ball is going to reverse. Wicket to wicket." © AFP

How do you think experiences like that Super Over will help you in a high-pressure tournament like the World Cup?
It gives you the belief that you have done something before, and whatever tactics you go with [in a situation] you just have to back them. It gives you belief you can do it again.

Steyn made an interesting comment once about how it is controlled pace, as opposed to extreme pace, that is more effective in limited-overs cricket - since batsmen these days have got innovative with scoops, ramps, paddles and so on.
That is where you have to adapt as a player. But pace will always be an advantage. Always. The fact that people are moving around like that is because you have pace. If you didn't have pace, they wouldn't have to do as much - just stand still and hit.

How has the IPL experience with Capitals helped you in your growth as a fast bowler?
It has helped me mentally. Ricky was an outstanding player, has been a coach in the IPL for a long time, so it is just good to tap into his mind and understand the game from his perspective. He is a really clear individual, gets to the point. Both him and Sourav [Ganguly, Capitals' mentor] know the game and both of them bring clarity to all of us who are still learning.

These two guys were great Test captains. Do you think you might be ready to lead South Africa in a few years? Do you have ambitions?
Firstly, I don't know if people see me that way. At the moment I am not thinking about that. But if people give me the responsibility, then I think I will take it on board and try it out. But at the moment I don't really see myself as a captain. I am just trying to play the game, and play the game the way I play it and learn about it. I am a leader, but I don't know to what extent.

South Africa turned 25 this week. You are going to turn 24 soon. How do you feel as a young South African, a successful athlete?
The context as a country is really dynamic. It can be confusing at times. You have got players leaving for Kolpak. You have got quota systems. You have got a whole lot of people who are about to retire. You have people who have retired.

"I just can't be too disciplined and cut out sugar, cut out McDonald's - that's really hard. I gym, but at the same time I live life. I'll have some beers"

And politically you have got a whole situation of black and white. That will never ever leave quickly - it needs time. And so, whether you like it or not, that dynamic is always there. With the generations that keep coming in, it gets less and less. My brother's generation, he is 15, it is obviously less [for them], but he knows what's going in the country.

Every single time you hear about what's happening in America, it's there. You can't escape it. Same thing in South Africa. It's there. Black and white. Now, ideally, you want there not to be black and white. As a black player myself, who has grown up with both white kids and black kids, I also realise [due to] what has happened in the past you almost get caught in between. I have pride in my ancestors, but I believe in what is ideal.

You are seen as a beacon in terms of transformation and all of that. People try and justify transformation by using players like us, using players like Lungi [Ngidi]. I feel transformation should happen at the grassroots. At professional level players should be picked on merit. For me, transformation is all about getting opportunity. Players or people should be given opportunity as much as possible.

"As you grow up you realise you are an inspiration [to others]. I do my best to give back" © AFP

Bringing that into the team, obviously if you are doing well and the team is doing well, you are going to be seen as an example. I try not to get too politically involved, although I know that there are people who look at me and are influenced by it, especially black children or black people. But I do know as well that there are white people who feel the same way.

Does it put pressure on you that you are being looked at in a certain way - that you are here due to transformation and you have a responsibility to succeed?
No. I'm a kid. I started playing cricket because I liked to play sport. I started doing well in cricket when I was in school. All I wanted to do from then on was to just keep improving and hopefully one day represent my country. And then I had other aspirations like wanting to be the best and learning my skill. That's why I play cricket. As you grow up you realise you are an inspiration [to others]. I do my best to give back.

I believe in opportunity. You have to give opportunity. From there, players should get picked fairly. For instance, I've got a foundation coming up - Kagiso Rabada Foundation. That is just going to give [players] opportunities. It should be like that in most platforms, not just cricket. In the past it was an unfair system. Right now it should be fair, but just because you are black, you should not be gifted opportunities.

What is the joy of playing cricket for you?
It is about challenging yourself. It is competitive. At the end of the day you are playing sport, which is something I love. You are an inspiration to a lot of kids. And that is the side of me I really want to bring across: to give opportunity to others and to inspire others so they can believe in themselves as well.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo