<
>

'Hopefully I can even inch towards 160kph'

Kagiso Rabada celebrates after dismissing Mahmudullah AFP

"I couldn't have dreamt of a better start," Kagiso Rabada says. The 20-year old fast bowler with barely a season of domestic cricket under his belt is is the name on everyone's lips. He's on his fourth international tour with the South African team and has started in every match of South Africa's ongoing tour of India.

"I feel like I have worked hard for it," he says. "I don't think I would wake up from the dream if I pinched myself."

Depending on who you listen to, Rabada could be anything from a new Michael Holding to the next Dale Steyn, but one theme holds consistent - South Africa have unearthed a fast bowler of perhaps unprecedented potential.

Despite everyone from his former bowling coach Allan Donald to his ODI captain AB de Villiers urging caution, saying that Rabada needs to be managed carefully, he appears to have an old head on his young shoulders and has mentally and physically mastered the deep end every time he has been thrown into it.

He only began to make a real name for himself at the 2014 Under-19 World Cup, which he helped South Africa win, after which he was offered a franchise contract for the Lions.

"If I hadn't got a contract then I would probably be studying law and playing amateur cricket. The academic side is still not out of it - I am keen to study further," says Rabada, who first picked up a bat and ball in earnest only ten years ago, after his grandmother, who was a huge cricket fan, "installed the game in my mind".

"Ever since I was young I wanted to play for the Proteas, and it is amazing to be playing with the guys who were my heroes as a kid. It's so cool to be with them - even if I'm not in the starting XI. I'm just being myself. I don't want to be like anybody else. One matures quickly on tours because you spend a lot of time alone in a foreign environment and have an opportunity to find yourself. Of course I'm learning from guys like Dale Steyn but mostly I'm just being me.

"I feel I have fitted well into every team I've joined," says Rabada. "At the Lions it feels good and for the Proteas it's even better. I love this job and I wouldn't want to do anything else."

Rabada regularly hits 150kph and his economy rates on flat tracks in India prove he has plenty of control to harness the raw pace. He might get even quicker as he bulks up a little. "Hopefully I can even inch towards the 160kph mark," he says. "My body should be okay with my action if I stay in the gym."

Among those who are vastly impressed with Rabada's skills is South African allrounder Albie Morkel. "I have never seen a bowler like that at his age. I saw Steyn come through the ranks but Rabada is something else, something very special. He has serious height and bounce and is a very unique natural talent - you can't coach what he has got."

Rabada's run-up looks effortless and his action smooth, and while his delivery technique has been tweaked by Lions bowling coach Gordon Parsons, Rabada says no one taught him how to bowl. "I was just told to keep my arm straight and I was like, 'Okay.'"

"Kagiso" may mean peace in Rabada's Sotho language but he doesn't shy away from using aggression on the field, where his hostile short ball rises extremely quickly and is highly effective. "After the game there will be peace but during the contest there is only one winner," he says with a wry smile.

His batting shows promise too, and there is hope that with more coaching and effort he might be able to call himself a genuine allrounder, although his only ever hundred came at primary school level.

"I don't want to be a bowler only. Whatever I do on the field I want to do better. I take my batting seriously - I averaged 40 or so at school and batted in the middle order."

Rabada's temperament, ability and success in the current ODI series, a step up from Bangladesh, whom he tore apart a few months ago, indicate that he could be a natural pick in the first Test in Mohali. But many feel he shouldn't be rushed into it.

"I'm sure Rabada wouldn't disgrace himself if he plays [in the Tests in India], but why not wait till we are at home and he has a perfect launch pad?" says Shaun Pollock.

Rabada doesn't mind waiting, but he's keeping himself ready. "I want to play in all formats right through my career, and I guess they want to manage my bowling workload, but I don't know, it's a Catch-22: when am I ready to play or not ready to play? I'm doing my best in the nets to be ready for a Test cap."

South Africa are likely to play three seamers in India, and of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, the only one without a high level of job security is Philander, whose bowling average of 17 in his first two years of Test cricket has ballooned to 38 in the last two years.

Indian surfaces don't give a lot of assistance to quicks but Rabada seems to thrive on a challenge. He was asked to bowl the final over against MS Dhoni in Kanpur with India needing 11 to win. He took two wickets, including Dhoni's, and conceded only five. "As I walk back to my mark I am thinking all the time, 'Where am I going to bowl? Should I change my field? How is the wicket? How am I going to get him out?'"

After the Kanpur chase, Hashim Amla, South Africa's Test captain, praised Rabada's maturity. "After Bangladesh, people said, don't rush the youngster, but he just proves himself every time he is given a chance at the next level. He is just going to keep doing his thing and hopefully you are going to see a great bowler. He is calm under pressure."

De Villiers has shown great faith in Rabada on this tour but is cautious to not overdo it. "He definitely needs to be managed well as he is such a valuable asset for the team looking forward. I have pushed him in very difficult situations because I have faith in his ability. He is one of those extremely rare talents like Quinton de Kock that makes a captain feel comfortable and he puts in immense effort and that makes me want to trust him."

Unlike teams such as Pakistan, South Africa don't not usually hurry to blood young talent, but de Kock was 20 himself when he earned his first T20 cap. He's not yet 23 and has already played 50 ODIs and six Tests despite having been in and out of the set-up a few times.

South Africa's caution not to rush Rabada into the full rigours of an international schedule comes from bitter past experiences with similar young talents. Rabada's case feels different but so did it feel with Mfuneko Ngam, whose exciting Test career was ended by injury when he was barely 22.

While others worry about his international exposure, Rabada remains relaxed about the other aspects of a touring cricketer's life: fame and a bigger lifestyle. "It is easy to get carried away but my parents help me a lot with staying on the right path. I don't see the need to do those clichéd things."

In his free time he likes doing anything to do with any sport, but his other major passion is music. He is into rap, hip-hop and more besides. "I'm making music but it's not easy," he says, playing down his lyrical talents. His father has helped him to produce some tracks, and the songs I've heard are catchy synthesised melodies with lyrics like, "I keep holding on, staying strong… don't let go of who you are."

Rabada will have to make some big choices about what to do in the off season and he will no doubt be guided by Cricket South Africa and his parents, a lawyer and a doctor, but for the moment he has not made any concrete plans.

"I've been asking around about what's the best thing to do and I'm interested in either a county or an IPL season, but I haven't had any formal approaches yet."

As a black cricketer in a largely white sport in South Africa, Rabada offers the chance to be a huge role model for younger generations, and he wants to play and play. Whatever the South African selectors decide, it is a fortunate dilemma in which they find themselves.