Cape Town – It was pretty understandable to anticipate that The Oval might have turned out to be Kagiso Rabada’s “angry” Test.
After all, he had controversially been ruled out of the prior, second contest against England at Trent Bridge for a disciplinary indiscretion related to “inappropriate language” during game one at Lord’s (no lack of observers felt the planet had greater issues to attend to, if you like).
Instead you might say Rabada simmered rather than sizzled, both statistically and in broad demeanour, in his comeback in the third Test, and he’s found himself in the slightly peculiar, unexpected position of being a participant in two defeats yet absentee from the lone, thumping SA triumph at Nottingham.
It almost sums up his involvement, as just Old Trafford remains for the Proteas to salvage some pride with a levelling win, in the series combat so far: credible, rather than earth-shattering.
And so lofty are Rabada’s normal standards, even at the still tender age of 22, that you might dare to venture - by whisper - he has under-delivered in his maiden exposure to an England-hosted Test series thus far.
Somewhere along the line in a keynote series, you almost automatically expect “KG” to have a field day - or even two or three - in the wickets column.
Just for example, he did in the prior series between the two countries, on our own soil two summers back, grabbing a five-for at the Wanderers and then stunning 13 scalps (including career-best innings haul to this day of 7/112) at Centurion.
In the current series, his best single-innings return has been 3/50 at Lord’s and his total catch stands at 10 wickets at 31.40. That’s no disgrace at all; neither does it yet ooze “wow” factor.
He currently rides fifth on the series averages among Proteas bowlers; this enviable athlete is more accustomed to featuring higher than that.
Truth be told, Rabada and Chris Morris were the most glaring culprits, too, in the pivotal early stages of the Test at The Oval, where England preyed on unacceptable levels of inaccuracy to amass a first-knock total above 350 – perhaps some 100 runs or so above where they should have ended, given conditions at the time.
With the traditionally ultra-disciplined, routinely pressure-building Vernon Philander stripped from the attack through illness for generous portions of that key period, only Morne Morkel of the seamers bowled consistently in the right areas to largely thwart England from “getting away” too much.
Morris was guiltier than Rabada of leaking boundaries too easily and letting his radar go awry, but he is also the less established of the two at Test level (Rabada has 19 caps, and 81 wickets at an impressive 24.64) and the more senior figure of the pair certainly came up short of customary standards.
By saying at the after-match press conference that he saw much more of the “KG I know” at times during England’s second innings, skipper Faf du Plessis was indirectly acknowledging Rabada’s shortcomings on days one and two.
As you would more or less expect, the skilful paceman has produced several sublime deliveries during the series thus far – the yorker to castle newcomer Dawid Malan at The Oval is difficult to forget – but more pronounced spells of captivating majesty have tended to elude him.
Whenever Rabada is operating at slightly less than the levels anticipated of him, thoughts almost inevitably turn to the sometimes dangerously high workload he has carried at all levels of the game for at least the last two years.
He is an understandable poster-figure in a marketing context for Cricket South Africa, and there was a period where he probably participated in a bit too much of the slightly less meaningful activity, in a sense, by the national side.
But it is not as though he ought to be too footsore on the current tour, even if he is among several SA squad members who have been in England for almost three months by now.
He was wisely kept out of the three-match T20 series altogether, giving him a respite of two weeks or more in mid-tour, and then got some feet-up time again for another fortnight-plus considering his banning from the Trent Bridge Test.
So Rabada truly “stepping up” in intensity and consistency for what will be a first personal experience of Old Trafford at any international level from Friday, would beef the SA cause enormously.
Let’s reiterate: there’s not been too much wrong with Rabada’s general performance across two Test matches in this series. But just imagine if he gets that wee bit more right, instead, in the decisive, closing fixture.
It could be a critical ticket to SA – some amidst their ranks potentially prone to homesickness now? -- bouncing back to 2-2, a considerably better outcome than series second-fiddle would be …
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