As one of the greatest philosophers of our time, Sean Carter, once said, “men lie, women lie, numbers don’t”. In many ways, numbers are what shape sport. They take a series of activities set within certain parameters and they give those activities form. With no words, numbers in sport are like chisels that carve memorable moments in our minds. For the sake of our own sanity, those numbers better be telling the truth. Not only do Kagiso Rabada’s numbers not lie, but they also tell an earth shattering truth. This truth, in numbers, is that a young black man from Jozi is currently ranked the 2nd best bowler on this planet, the Delhi Daredevils drafted him for R9.8 million, making him the 3rd most expensive foreign player in the Indian Premier League. He is the 3rd South African to hold an ODI hat-trick. These numbers are impressive on their own, yet what sends them into legendary status is that he is only 22yrs old.
After competing in different sports in school, he finally settled on cricket, displaying vast potential at a very young age. The shockwaves that he has sent out through the sport since then are a distant echo when you speak to him. His calm demeanor almost tames his meteoric rise. His tone is measured, his answers carefully considered. Yet, he doesn’t play down his achievements as much as he emphasizes a grounded perspective that pivots on focusing on results and consistency.
There’s a certain self-awareness in how he carries himself that gives a sense that he fully grasps the position that he is in. As with many things in a country as racialised as South Africa, sport can be very polarizing. When speaking about race in sport Kagiso Rabada is adamant about not letting race relations override the hard work that he puts into his craft. That rationale is not without its own merits. Tokenism can reduce years of blood and sweat to a dismissible trope about quotas. He mentions that he has always wanted to play international cricket. That ambition then laid out the blueprint for what he had to do, be the best, to start strong. Writer, Calvin Newport characterises this approach as aiming for being “so good that they can’t ignore you”.
That philosophy has worked like a dream because, ignoring Kagiso Rabada has been near impossible ever since he burst on to the scene during the 2014 U19 World Cup as a phenom where he was said to be the “fastest and most feared bowler”. He doesn’t seem too surprised by how his career as played out either and he concedes that he never really thought of pursuing a more academic career. He also attests his level headedness to his parents’ support. Having attended private schools also meant that he was exposed to much of the workings of professional sport, giving him the advantage of not being phased material success.
His calculated responses are not out of place in the world of elite sport. What defines this level of competition is the limited margins for error. The difference between coming first and coming second at elite level could be less than a second. Winning tournaments can come down to a single point. That means that every single action taken on the field of play has to be considered with razor sharp focus. As a result, Kagiso Rabada seems to want to make sure that he is in control even of his own narrative. Even though he does not want to allude to it, he is well aware of how high the stakes are for him as a young black man playing a historically white sport, and killing it.
Interestingly, what he has found challenging in his ever growing career has been more off the field. After mentioning that he anticipated the long stretches of time spent away from home and the grueling training regimen, it is the administrative aspect of fame that caught him off guard. He speaks jovially about the realities of managing his ever-bourgeoning personal brand. It is difficult to imagine that knowing how to manage yourself in a photo-shoot for a high profile publication is something one gets taught during interschool tournaments. Also, the idea of having the same interview 26 times for different outlets is one he finds amusing. In fact, so demanding is his schedule that he has once had to ask his parents to stand in for him at an event where he was announced as a brand ambassador for local brand Vaseline with the start strong campaign.
All this have required a lot from someone who has just come out of puberty. He has had to develop and intense amount of personal resolve as a level of maturity that far exceeds his age. That much is evident in how he carries himself in the public eye. He keeps his personal life far away from the medial and his brand presence is consistent to a fault. But his calmness, however, doesn’t imply timidity. The man is lit and he does not fear asserting himself. In July he was banned from a Test match because of “inappropriate language”. It was an incident that saw many veteran cricketers rallying behind him. This support is also telling. It paints a picture of an athlete who can command respect not only for his skill for his work ethic. His achievements also signal a paradigm shift in local sport and his ambition is sure to break more boundaries and leave the game changed forever.
Writer: Vus Ngxande Photographer: Judd van Rensburg Stylist: Mpumi Sinxoto Copy Editor: Palesa Motau Creative Facilitator: Ashley Moetlo Creative Director: George Gladwin Matsheke