Shiva Jayaraman is a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo @shiva_cricinfo
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Kagiso Rabada went three long years without taking a five-wicket haul in Tests, from March 2018 to mid-2021. This was when he was hit by injuries and suffered indifferent form. South Africa were also struggling to find him consistent fast-bowling partners, in that awkward period coinciding with the decline of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, the men around whom he had cut his teeth.
Elsewhere, there was an embarrassment of fast-bowling riches in Test cricket, most particularly with the rise of Pat Cummins and Jasprit Bumrah in Australia and India, and the enduring excellence of James Anderson in England. Rabada's dip in form coincided with one of the best fast-bowling eras in Test cricket, which worked to amplify the gap between him and the top fast bowlers going around at that time.
He was still the top-wicket taker for South Africa, with 67 wickets at an average of 27.20, but the global average for pace bowlers during that period was 27.13. Fourteen other fast bowlers had taken at least as many wickets as Rabada during this period, and 11 among them averaged better than Rabada.
This was a time when fast-bowling spearheads were helping their teams win away from home. South Africa, by contrast, had lost all seven of the Tests they played away from home. Rabada himself had taken 20 wickets in these matches at an average of 33.65. All this, and the lack of attention that comes with grabbing a five-wicket haul, created an illusion that the South Africa pacer's career had fizzled out after an excellent start.
Since the tour of the Caribbean in June 2021, where he took his first five-for since the Gqeberha Test against Australia in March 2018, Rabada seems to have found his mojo. In eight Tests since then, he has taken 48 wickets at an average of 16.77 and a strike rate of 34.1. He has added three five-fors to his tally of nine till that return to form in 2018.
Even during bad days on the field, Rabada has found ways to take wickets in Tests. Few bowlers have been as effective in dismissing the tail-enders as him. In the 17-Test span mentioned above, 23 of Rabada's 67 wickets were of batters at No. 8 or lower, taken at a strike rate of just 14.7 balls on an average. His overall strike-rate was still an excellent 47, which kept him on course to become the second-fastest bowler to 250 Test wickets, dismissing Ben Stokes with 10065th ball he bowled in Tests. In the entire Test history, only his compatriot Steyn has taken fewer balls to get to 250 Test wickets.
Rabada's career strike-rate of 40.2 - which at present is best for any bowler who has taken at least 250 wickets - tends to take the limelight off his excellent bowling average. Even though Rabada has often looked like he has gone astray with his lines, he has been quite frugal. An excellent average of 22.10 stands testimony to that. Among 48 bowlers who took 250 or more Test wickets, only six averaged better at the end of the Test in which they took their 250th wicket (at the same stage of their career). South Africa's Shaun Pollock leads this list with an average of 20.15. Joel Garner, Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Fred Trueman and Waqar Younis are ahead of Rabada, who - in turn - is just ahead of Allan Donald who averaged 22.11. Steyn is 10th on this list with an average of 22.82.
In fact, very few bowlers have taken wickets as cheaply and as frequently as Rabada at the same stage of their careers. Rabada is only one of three bowlers to have reached 250 Test wickets averaging below 25 and striking at below 45. Among 48 bowlers who've taken at least 250 wickets, the only others to manage this were Younis and Steyn.
Sceptics will point at his humble record in Asia - he has taken 22 wickets in ten Tests at an average of 35.6 and a strike-rate of 71.7. These numbers are nowhere as good as his career numbers. But even the best of fast bowlers (read Anderson) took their time figuring out how to bowl in conditions where there is usually little help on offer. But that shouldn't take away anything from Rabada's promise as a match-winner for South Africa in Tests.
Lord's was the eighth Man-of-the-match award of Rabada's career in just 53 Tests. No bowler has come close to that number since Rabada's debut.