When Kagiso Rabada
arrived at St Stithians College in northern Johannesburg, he was a flash left-hander with every shot in the book. "He reminded us a little of Brian Lara," said Wim Jansen, the school's director of cricket. "He was pretty flamboyant when he joined the school in Grade 8."
As a bowler, Rabada was wild. With his willowy frame and liquid slide to the crease, he could always bowl fast, but he was cavalier in his preparation and struggled with no-balls. Jansen said the school's coaches forced him to measure out his run to the centimetre, and before long he was deep into the subtle arts of composing an over. He worked on his core strength and wasn't over-bowled; the school smartly seeing to it that he wasn't pitchforked into the arduous extra regime of club cricket like so many other young fast bowlers. He duly made the Gauteng Under-15 team in his second year at school and played four years of 1st XI cricket, helping make St Stithians one of the most powerful cricketing schools in the land.
While Rabada was still at school, Jansen introduced the idea of a walkway of trees. The concept was borrowed from Wynberg Boys' High in the Western Cape - Jacques Kallis' alma mater - and involves planting young trees alongside a path around the first team cricket oval. Trees are planted for significant achievements - hundreds and five-wicket hauls - and despite taking loads of wickets at school, Rabada matriculated at the end of 2013 without a tree bearing his name.
"We didn't realise it at the time but not having a tree became a bit of an issue for Kagiso," said Jansen. "I remember being woken up [a couple of months later] at about 2am by him phoning from Dubai after he'd taken 6 for 25 in the [U-19] World Cup semi-final against Australia [in 2014]. All he wanted to know was if a tree could be planted in his name."
Associations are disappearing off the map, Kei and KwaZulu-Natal Inland have been dissolved, and the Warriors franchise has recently been stabilised after years of administrative bullshit and infighting
Although he'd already matriculated, Jansen and Ian Rickleton, a fellow master at St Stithians, bent the rules ever so slightly to accommodate Rabada, and now he has a tree on the path around the first team oval. Beneath the tree is a plaque recording his U-19 achievements, but the way he's going it's likely that the walkway will have significantly increased traffic in the years to come. Rabada, one senses, is the kind of player who will see to it that the plaque gets changed time and time again, updated to keep pace with his T20 and ODI deeds. Take the recent ODI in Kanpur
. In it he defended 11 in the last over, having MS Dhoni caught and bowled, and also capturing the wicket of Stuart Binny, the visitors squeaking home by five runs.
With performances like these, Rabada seems very much set to stay. He's level-headed, calm under pressure, and unlike, say, Dale Steyn's last over in this year's World Cup semi-final
against New Zealand, in which he failed to defend 12, he has a sense of the grand occasion. "Yes, he was a bit of drama queen at school," says Jansen. "He really loved acting. I think drama was the subject he achieved the best marks for in his final exams."
Rabada's meteoric rise has a long and illustrious precedent in South African cricket. Not a season goes by without some player - often, but not always, a bowler - stepping onto the national stage from left field. Paul Adams, described with crafty genius by local journalist Andy Capostagno as being like "a frog in a blender", was one such player, as were Marchant de Lange and, possibly, Hardus Viljoen.
There is something protean in South African cricket, some wellspring of fecundity that sees players drop in from strange places. This means that the system is providing enough opportunities in enough places for pathways to be established and routes to be grooved.
Having said this, in other respects the system is creaking like a poorly nailed-together tree house in a Highveld thunderstorm. Young white cricketers are becoming disenchanted - the trendy destination of choice is New Zealand - because of the stringent racial quotas, and almost everywhere the system is running on empty, financially speaking. Associations are disappearing off the map, Kei and KwaZulu-Natal Inland have been dissolved, and the Warriors franchise has recently been stabilised after years of administrative bullshit and infighting.
Look around at the six franchise coaches and almost invariably one sees either talented former players (Adams, or Lance Klusener at Dolphins) or comparative youngsters learning on the job. What one has, in effect, is a culture of senior players running the ship. It's a dangerous state of affairs, not helped by Cricket South Africa blithely pretending all is hunky-dory. Unwittingly, as their new poster boy, Rabada has helped them patch over the widening cracks. It's an untenable situation in the long term.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg