Banned for two Tests by the International Cricket Council (ICC) after accumulating nine demerit points, Kagiso Rabada’s absence hurts not just him, but his team, in the ongoing series against Australia, so tantalizingly poised after the South Africans drew level 1-1 at Port Elizabeth.
Without Rabada’s testing bowling, the attack loses the fire and edge that has had the Australian batsmen on tenterhooks. Steve Smith and Co. will breathe easy and South Africa will be on the back foot despite winning the second Test.
Rabada’s charisma has been growing exponentially. He is the kind of player fans and critics would love to see in action. Without him, the box office will take a hit, as will the skill sets and aesthetics that raise the level of the sport.
An incandescent century by A.B. de Villiers in vintage form—his first in almost three years—rescued South Africa from a near-hopeless situation in the second Test. But Rabada’s fiery bowling clinched the match.
A silken run-up, sizzling pace and sublime skills mark Rabada out as special. In the current series, he has taken 15 wickets in two Tests and looked the most potent. Mitchell Starc is touted as the best fast bowler in the world currently, but Rabada is pushing him hard.
Not quite 23, he already has 135 wickets in just 28 Tests, at an astonishing strike rate of 38.9. Such precocity is rare. Further mining of data shows that Rabada has taken 10 or more wickets in a Test four times in his short career.
At Port Elizabeth, he took 11 wickets to be named man of the match. That a player of his promise should face the two-Test ban hours later makes the irony unmistakable, but also throws up a couple of pertinent questions.
Are the laws well formulated and in sync with the times, so that players like Rabada are not lost to the game, even if occasionally? If they are, what can be done to prevent this?
These are not easy questions to answer. There have been several interpretations over the years about just how much aggression is kosher. Is glaring at a player, giving him “some lip", or sending off a batsman tempestuously fair or foul?
Sledging has been intrinsic to the game, whatever purists might argue. It also adds flavour to the action. The acceptable threshold, however, remains debatable. The ICC has tried to introduce punishments for various levels of offences, but not to everybody’s satisfaction.
In the recent case involving Rabada, for instance, the South Africans are clearly unhappy with the two-match ban and want to contest it in the days leading up to the third Test, as Faf du Plessis indicated in his post-match observations.
“The charge against KG (Rabada) is a Level 2 with 3 demerit points," he said, “and the charge against David Warner is the same. For me, if you look at those incidents, one is brushing of the shirt, the other is a lot more aggressive. My question (to match referee Jeff Crowe) was, why are these incidents labelled the same?"
The South African captain’s reasoning will resonate with those who have seen the Australians as traditional offenders in such matters. Having seen the footage of the incident involving Rabada and Smith, I believe that the fleeting body contact wasn’t deliberate.
Unfortunately, while Warner’s bust-up with Quinton de Kock happened off the field, Rabada’s was in the middle. If the rule is not upheld, why have it? Provided, of course, this is done with consistency, which is not borne out by several other instances.
Yet, there is also another aspect to the Rabada story which can’t be overlooked: that he has been a serial offender. He has had five infringements since February 2017, the most by any player, and was also banned for a Test against England last summer.
This suggests a certain fragility of temperament that is working to his and the team’s detriment. In this aspect, I found du Plessis’ comparison of Rabada and Dale Steyn both fascinating and instructive. The South African captain believed that the two bowlers were similar, except that the latter let off steam some distance away from the batsman!
At a wider level, not restricted to Rabada, du Plessis and the current series, the solution is not in ingenious methods or indeed just ICC rules. This must come from within the dressing room, where team culture is defined. In this, I believe, the captain’s role is paramount.
A cricket captain is endowed with great power and authority, he must also take the onus for how his team responds and reacts on the field. Indeed, I ask that if an errant player is assigned demerit points, should the captain not cop some of it too?