South African cricket brimming with young prospects
Imagine if there were others from where Kagiso Rabada came from. Imagine more potential match-winners and record-breakers whose careers have only just begun. You don't have to imagine too hard. They are already out there.
Rabada came from a South African squad that made history when it won the Under-19 World Cup on March 1, 2014. The senior side has tried six times and failed. The youngsters were, as South Africa's sports minister Fikile Mbalula put it, "a bunch of winners", and Rabada is not the only one who will bloom.
"All of them have the potential to make it big," Ray Jennings, who coached the U-19 squad, said. "Kagiso was obviously the stand out, and there might end up being two halves - those who go on and actually make it and those who just fade away, but all of them have what it takes."
Clyde Fortuin, a wicketkeeper from Western Cape, had the most dismissals at the World Cup - 19 catches and a stumping - double that of his nearest competitor, and has been signed by Warriors as their first-choice keeper across all formats this season.
"We recognised that he could come into our set-up and balance the team. Of course, he still needs to make sure he selects himself through performance, but we signed him with the intention of him being our No. 1," Malibongwe Maketa, Warriors coach, said.
Fortuin is replacing Davy Jacobs, who hung up his gloves after a prolonged period of injury. He will some face competition for the spot from Gihahn Cloete, who played in the 2012 U-19 World Cup.
At 23, Cloete, who also moved provinces after playing in the Free State for the last five seasons, is three years older than Fortuin, but experience may not trump youth at Warriors. "Fortuin is quiet and down to earth but with a little bit of arrogance. He really believes in his own ability," Maketa said. "He has come on his own into a foreign environment and that already shows a lot of maturity. We want to make sure we can create an environment for him to grow and give him as much opportunity as we can to perform."
That has already been happening for two of Rabada's other team-mates - allrounder Andile Phehlukwayo and fast bowler Sibonelo Makhanya. They are both on Dolphins' books and are fast establishing themselves as regular members of the set-up.
Last year they travelled with the team to the Champions League T20, where Phehlukwayo played in all four Dolphins games. It was tough going for him - he only bowled four overs and went wicketless at the tournament - but he got exposure on a grand scale. This summer, they have both been part of the Africa T20 Cup squad and are playing in the ongoing domestic one-day cup.
Phehlukwayo and Makhanya are not only crossing the bridge from U-19 to franchise cricket. They are also two success stories among several promising black African players - the demographic group Cricket South Africa is targeting in a bid to overcome apartheid's legacy of marginalisation. They are what happens when transformation works.
Both come from humble backgrounds. Phelukwayo is the child of a single parent who was a domestic worker; Makhanya grew up in the township of Verulam, about 30 kilometres outside Durban, and had to travel more than 60km to get to school daily.
They received scholarships to Glenwood High, the alma mater of South Africa Test cricketer Steven Jack, to ensure they had access to better facilities and coaching.
Makhanya was eventually offered a scholarship that included boarding at Durban High School, where Hashim Amla and Barry Richards studied. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian last year, he recalled the difficulties of settling in and overcoming the odds.
"It was the first time that I was exposed to that kind of a world. When I first got to Glenwood I had my tired, cheap kit, and I looked up to white guys. Then I grew up and became more mature and began to understand where I want to be in life," he said. Now it seem as though he is getting there.
Lower down in the system, at the semi-professional provincial level, Rabada's World Cup captain, Aiden Markram, South Africa's top run scorer in the tournament, has a contract with Titans. Markram opened the batting for Northerns in the Africa T20 Cup and scored a half-century in the semi-final against the Kwa-Zulu Natal team Phehlukwayo and Makhanya were part of. Markram, along with Fortuin and Corbin Bosch, was also part of the South Africa Emerging squad that toured Sri Lanka in August, and he and Bosch are currently part of the University of Pretoria squad in India defending their World Campus Title.
Five other members of that champion U-19 team are also part of university outfits - Dirk Bruwer played for University of Free State, Justin Dill for Stellenbosch University, Ngazibini Sigwili is at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, Jason Smith turns out for University of the Western Cape and Yaseen Valli is at the University of Johannesburg. And all of them are involved in provincial outfits as well.
Jennings believes they are the players most likely to be on the right path to success because they are giving themselves options not dependent on cricket. "Players need to get educated to do other things because a lot of sports people, especially young players, can overrate themselves. They think because they have school colours they are heroes and the world owes them a living, but that's not the case," he said. "Varsity is important. You need to be educated and learn to feel the heat of life so that when you are 21 or 22, you're not still getting out of bed at 11am and going to the movies at 12 and that's your day."
But what about those who feel their chances of becoming professional sportsmen take too long? Bradley Bopp, part of the World Cup team, has decided to try his luck in the UK, while former U-19 captain Chad Bowes, who was South Africa's second highest run scorer behind Quinton de Kock at the 2012 World Cup, has emigrated to New Zealand and hopes to qualify to play for them after failing to make headway at Kwa-Zulu Natal.
Jennings does not see a talent drain as a potential pitfall of a system that sometimes makes players wait for a contract. "It's always a good idea to achieve your dream and if you can't achieve it where you are, you may have to go somewhere else. You must have a positive, energetic system with a good structure that is pushing people from the bottom up. That's when you know it's working."
Rabada and Co are proof of that.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent