Meteoric rise of Rabada the rocketman

In just over two years, the Proteas bowler with the jet-fuelled delivery has risen to No 2 in the ICC test rankings. This weekend he is in action against India

07 January 2018 - 00:00 By Sydney Seshibedi

Like the Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, who infamously benefited from the "hand of God" when he scored against England in a 1986 Fifa World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico, Kagiso Rabada has an epic handball incident in his sporting past.
For Rabada, who was playing football for St Stithians College in Johannesburg at the time, it was an indication that perhaps he should switch to a sport in which holding the ball was legal.
"I played in the first team in high school," the sportsman, now famous as a fast bowler, tells the Sunday Times. "I remember I scored one with my hand and the ref allowed it."
Rabada laughs as he recalls the incident, from a school sports tournament in Bloemfontein, that gave his team victory.
"I didn't do it on purpose. I jumped to head the ball but it was too far, and my hand was close enough to palm it in."
The 22-year-old Proteas seamer is currently No2 in the International Cricket Council rankings as a test bowler - behind England's James Anderson - and sixth in the ICC's one-day internationals rankings.
Since making his test debut against India in November 2015 (and before the Newlands test against India that started on Friday), he has taken 105 wickets. The test at Newlands is his 24th cap.
Rabada's father, Mpho, is a medical doctor who obtained an MBA at the University of Surrey 10 years ago and is now a businessman, running the networking platform Swipa Solutions.
His mother, Florence, is a town planner, and he has a younger brother, Atlegang, 13, who Rabada says also shows natural sporting ability. No pressure, Atlegang.
"I am from a mixed family," Rabada says.
"My father is from Phiphidi in Venda, but he grew up in Mamelodi. My mother is a Motswana woman, and my grandfather from my mother's side came from Malawi."There is also coloured and Xhosa blood in the family. At home we speak Sesotho, Setswana, Sepedi and English."
Rabada was born and raised in Johannesburg. His family initially lived in the south of the city but later moved to the northern suburbs, and he went to primary school in Bryanston before graduating to St Stithians.
It was in high school that Rabada's sporting ability became apparent, thanks to natural instincts that made up for any lack of technical or tactical mastery."When I first started I did not have a huge interest in sport," he says.
"I just did it and saw that I was good at it. I made the rugby team and my rugby coach was going to coach my cricket team also.
"One afternoon I was preparing to go home and he asked someone to call me to come play cricket, and the rest is history.
"I just played out of instinct. I did not put my mind to it. I played instinctively. I feel like I am only learning my cricket now."
Less than two years after the Bloemfontein schools football tournament, Rabada travelled to Australia with the national under-19 team to take part in the Cricket World Cup. His outstanding performance there catapulted him into professional cricket.
"Sport just came naturally to me. I excelled a lot in cricket," he says.
Rabada may already be a top international cricketer, but just a few short years ago he was still a schoolboy trying to get a good matric.
"I was always like ... I don't know, normal," he says of his school days. "I always liked to talk to my friends and to mess around with my friends, all in good spirit. But I did OK. I did what I needed to do and I got decent marks."
There was no time for a gap year of going overseas and having fun - cricket claimed his attention full-time as soon as he wrote his last exam.The rewards that professional cricket have brought have failed to seduce Rabada into materialism; he is modest in how he dresses and in his behaviour. Many young men with his resources at their disposal would have given in to the temptation to fling money around recklessly.
How modest is his lifestyle? So modest that he still lives at home with his parents.
"I have not left home yet, as I do not see the point. However, I am looking to invest in property," he says.
Rabada admits to a growing interest in going into business. What kind of business?
"I would like to innovate," he says. He is not sure if he wants to join his father's business, he says.
Rabada is not the type of person who has a large number of friends. He acknowledges that his fame means that he has met a great many people, but he characterises most of them as acquaintances rather than friends.
One of those he counts among his true friends is fellow professional sportsman Innocent "Inny-Christian" Radebe, the Sharks utility back, who he knows from being at school together at St Stithians.
"I do have friends but not too many," Rabada says.
"I know a lot of people but they are not my friends. Innocent Radebe and I have known each other for a long time."
Many of us have a couple of favourite moments of Rabada brilliance on the cricket pitch.
Do a Google search for "Rabada yorkers" and feel the awe as you click through a series of videos showing the tall athlete punching the air in glorious celebration after bowling yorkers that no batsman can deal with.
For himself, the moment that Rabada holds dearest to his heart is one that happened far from the pitch.He was still a pupil at St Stithians, and Nelson Mandela was visiting the school.
It was many years ago, and the exact nature of the event is lost in the mists of time, but Rabada recalls that his hero was sitting in the front row of the chapel at the school.
"The door was wide open and I saw him sitting on the bench in the chapel," the cricketer says.
"I waved at him and he waved back. It felt very special because there was no one around me."
Rabada loves reading and devours books over a wide range of genres. He sees reading as a way to increase his knowledge and therefore as something deeper than mere entertainment.
A while back he immersed himself in autobiographies - especially those of sports celebrities - and now he sinks his teeth into history.
"I have an interest in world history and spiritual wellness or motivational books.
"I went through the phase of reading autobiographies of people who used to play sport. I have read Dan Carter and Usain Bolt. I have read multiple books. I also read a book on Cristiano Ronaldo," he says.
So it's not just us ordinary folks in the stands who lap up the words of famous All Blacks rugby players, Jamaican sprint legends and Portuguese soccer icons.
Rabada says he looks up to many people in sport. "I like it when people defy the odds," he says.
As for his diet, Rabada says he enjoys traditional South African foods, a variety of braai meats, pap and salads.
When it comes to fashion, he is not fussy at all. He does not mind wearing suits, even though he spends much of his time in sportswear.
"I am not the most fashionable guy, I like to dress up in a suit if possible."
In his short cricket career Rabada has built a reputation as a reliable backup when veteran fast bowlers like Dale Steyn or Morné Morkel have been sidelined by injury, and he has grasped the opportunities with both hands.
While Rabada also played soccer and rugby in high school, he says cricket has always been the sport that he knew he could excel in. The fast bowler played for the Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League last year and had been lined up as a marquee player for the Joburg Giants in last year's aborted T20 Global League.
Seshibedi works for Gallo Images as a senior sports photographer.

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