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Kagiso Rabada: 'We want to win and we'll fight tooth and nail for it'

South Africa's most senior fast bowler talks about being at the pointy end when no one expected them to

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
"Fire versus fire."
That's how Kagiso Rabada described what happens when South Africa and Australia meet. And he would know.
Australia were the first senior international opposition he faced, just over nine years ago. They (along with Sri Lanka) are the team he has taken the most ODI wickets against. And there's no doubt they are the side who make him see the red mist more than others. Which is why Thursday's semi-final is special.
"This is what you dream of as a kid," Rabada said in Ahmedabad, where South Africa finished their league campaign in second place. "And we wouldn't want it any other way. They must bring their best and we will bring ours."
That's fighting talk from a player at the peak of his powers, playing in his second 50-over World Cup and sixth ICC tournament all told. Rabada's CV includes three T20 World Cups and the Under-19 50-over tournament in 2014 - to date still the only World Cup South Africa have won. Though his reputation has been built on red-ball performances, and he was ranked the No.1 bowler in Test cricket between 2018 and 2020, he hasn't always been spoken about as being among the one-day bowling greats, and he wants to change that. Rabada recently earned his 100th ODI cap and it's this format that he first hoped would bring him the most glory.
"There's always room for 50-over cricket," he said. "Growing up, that's what I watched and that's what inspired me to want to play at this level," he said. "It was about watching World Cups and watching players perform heroic acts."
It has also been about the intricate demands that ODIs put on players and the Goldilocks skills that are required in this format: not too little, not too much, but just right.
"The 50-over format tests you a bit more as a player [than T20s]. I feel like there's more luck that plays a role in T20 cricket. In the 50-over format, you have to play well for a lengthened amount of time.
"The best players in the world play all three formats and that's no surprise to me. You have to maintain your performance over a long space of time. One-day cricket will test you upfront, then it tests you in the middle, and sometimes the ball does reverse a little bit or you can get early wickets upfront and then the wicket maybe flattens out a bit.
"There's always more to it than just 50 overs, and there's more stories you can build off 50-over cricket. Without criticising T20 cricket, which it has its own flavour, 50-over cricket has proven again that there is huge interest in it."
Although the crowd numbers for several league matches in this tournament may not show it, there have been record audiences both at the grounds and on television. While that may have a lot to do with the home team dominating, it could also be about the expectation that contests will get closer (there have only been three tight games out of 45 so far) and that the battle between bat and ball will become more even. So far there have been signs of the latter because there have been 12 first-innings scores between 250 and 290 (what we may call middling totals) and while tracks have generally been good for batting, there has also been good bounce, turn and movement. In South Africa's case, it's the presence of swing in humid conditions that has been particularly pleasing.
"The ball normally swings upfront in India, and bowling at night, there seems to be a bit more movement, especially in Mumbai and Pune," Rabada said. "There has been something there with the new ball
"We get caught in this façade that we're playing in India, especially in the IPL, where it only swings for one or two overs and then it's done. Now with the two new balls, it swings for a bit longer and there is a bit of nip."
But it's not Rabada who has been able to take advantage of that swing. Marco Jansen and Lungi Ngidi have been given the two new balls and Rabada, now the senior-most member of the bowling side, has been moved to first change.
He does not see his role as any different, though. "I still try and do exactly what I would do if I was opening the bowling. If anything, the only thing that's different is bowling towards the back end of the powerplay," he said, which indicates that is when batters are looking to up the ante before the field is spread.
What stands out about Rabada's performance, given that context, is how tight he has been. In his eight matches so far, he has conceded 4.83 runs to the over, which makes him the fourth-most economical seamer in the tournament. The discipline he has brought has benefited other members of the attack, three of whom have more wickets than him, but Rabada is past the phase where he measures his success by stats.
"Wickets, they just come. You don't necessarily plan for them. If you are a natural wicket-taker, you will take wickets," he said. "Here, the guys have been starting really well upfront and that allows me to come into the game."
He was full of praise for the opening pair. Jansen, he said, has been doing "phenomenally well", and has urged him to "follow his gut feel". Ngidi, he said, has a "lot of skill and control".
"The one thing we have as an attack is that we have the ability to take wickets," Rabada said. "That's something that's been given unto us. We can do it. I don't think it's a matter of being overconfident but it's a matter of having that strong belief that we can bowl opposition teams out."
That's not just Rabada talking his own attack up. South Africa have bowled their opposition out seven times out of nine in this tournament, and taken 82 of a possible 90 wickets, second only to India.
"They've been bowling really well," Rabada said of the hosts. "They are hitting their lines and lengths and they are not giving batters much to work with. They are playing close to their best, if not at their best."
Asked if the Indian attack has broken through a ceiling when it comes to setting standards in the one-day game, he would not be drawn to exaggeration. "It's nothing new. It's an international standard," he said. "It's a high standard and to beat a high standard, you have to match your opponents in whatever they bring to the table; match it or even exceed it."
That could be the next challenge for South Africa, if they come through the semi-final against Australia and end up meeting India in the final. Given that they were not even tipped to make the semis, that they are in the reckoning to be there at the end is an achievement in itself. Though that's not how it will seem: against the backdrop of South Africa's other successes this year - the women's team reaching the final of the T20 World Cup and the Springboks winning the rugby World Cup - there is now an expectation this team can go all the way, which might weigh on them.
"We are constantly in this performance environment, and that is not taken lightly," Rabada said. "All the spectators see is how we play on the day but everything that turns us into how we play on the day - hours and hours of work, grinding, meeting, planning and sticking together - people don't see that. That's what we go through as a team.
"We face a lot of criticism as a group. We get all the praise as a group. Being a sportsman, you go up and you go down. It's either 'You are the best cricketer in the world', or a s**t cricketer. There's nothing in between.
"But we know people want to see us win and we want to see ourselves win too, and we'll fight tooth and nail for it. We know what it means. And all we are looking to do is to win."
Read on its own, it could sound like desperation but Rabada is not a desperate player. He is a quietly passionate one, who has found a balance between wanting the trophy as badly as South Africa do and being willing to accept and enjoy the experience as it unfolds.
"Finding that medium is important," he said. "At the end of the day you realise that cricket is not really everything, but it is everything. It's what you dedicate your life to, but it's not what makes you breathe."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket