Cape Town – Time is beginning to run just a little short for Kagiso Rabada, the virtually undisputed jewel in South Africa’s bowling crown, to rediscover his famed, most lethal form for the glamour four-Test home summer series against England.
It is perhaps no help collectively that the current crop of Proteas players, struggling to an unusual degree in two of the international formats – Tests and one-day internationals – are in the thick of commitments in the controversial Mzansi Super League Twenty20 competition.
The shortest of the brands, ironically, is the one where South Africa look less vulnerable right now than the others, especially as they come off a fighting 1-1 T20 series outcome in India, where they were later whitewashed 3-0 in the Tests.
They have won four and shared one of their last five bilateral series in T20, which is a far better situation than their Test plight (successive losses, India away and previously an embarrassing 0-2 against Sri Lanka at home) or ODI predicament, following the dreadful 2019 World Cup in England.
But in a transitional era where they probably have a smaller group of true superstars in their general midst than in any other post-isolation period, Rabada’s highly marketable status and normally very influential role has tapered off in line with so many other national players in recent months.
In short, the pace-bowling “banker” has shown fledgling signs of something a bit closer to bankruptcy.
T20 is lopsidedly geared toward batting exploits: the very best of bowlers, even when seemingly at the top of their games, can find it an unforgiving environment … especially when luck turns elusive and the likely chop onto the stumps, for example, instead becomes a streaky, cruel inside edge for four.
Rabada has been falling prey at times to that sort of hallmark during the MSL, even as his bowling has seldom glaringly lacked zip, or desire.
But he is also cutting a slightly perplexed, occasionally irritated-looking figure as the event simply continues a penchant for several months of the 24-year-old failing to match his often sublime statistics of earlier years – and especially at the highest level.
Not helped by defending champions the Jozi Stars having slid to a 0/4 win record and already in great danger of failing to make the knockout cut, Rabada currently sports three wickets in the quartet of games at an unflattering average of 44 and leaky economy rate of nearly nine runs to the over.
That is well down on his career T20 stats (internationals and franchise matches inclusive) of 100 wickets at 20.89, and also well superior economy of 7.66.
His (still glowing, mind) figures in the other two landscapes have taken a knock in recent times, too: a CWC 2019 return of 11 wickets at 36.09 doesn’t stack up well against his overall ODI stats of 117 scalps at 27.34, while an unremarkable Indian Test series contribution of seven wickets at 40.71 – some Indian speedsters fared notably better – also looks ordinary against career numbers of 183 wickets at 22.50.
Rabada’s leanness of the last few months as a (once customary) Proteas match-winner becomes that little more concerning when the shrinking volume of time to the English Test series – beginning at SuperSport Park on Boxing Day – is considered.
It is possible, after all, that with Jozi Stars in a tough battle from here to make the top-three cut, their campaign will end by December 10, with only six more round-robin matches still to play – so a very maximum of 24 competitive overs for someone like Rababa, under that scenario, before the pretty formidable English five-day challenges.
The scheduling of the MSL was never ideal for the Proteas players, including him, who will have to make a rather sudden shift from T20 to long-form mode; hitting the ground running at Centurion may prove difficult.
Should the Stars fail to make the knockouts, Rabada – if clearly in need of renewed confidence, or miles in the legs – might just be considered for duty in a 4-day Franchise Series fixture between the Lions and Titans at the Wanderers from December 19 to 22.
But that seems a long shot: it is far likelier the Proteas would want him “in camp” over that period to specifically prepare as a group for the first Test, and thus also less at risk of an ill-timed breakdown by their critical strike factor in a first-class outing.
A better hope is that his statistical luck turns in what is left of the MSL, giving him a better chance of feeling more like the incisive “KG” of old by the time the bigger-gravitas assignment comes along…
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