Johannesburg – Kagiso Rabada does not know the names of all his heroes.
A few of them he can identify by name – a Steve Jobs or a Usain Bolt, people who are part of the world’s collective consciousness – but most are ordinary people, the average Joe who make a difference to the lives of other people every day.
“I look up to anybody who does stuff that inspires other people. We regularly hear about some of their stories on TV, but there are many others who do small things that change the circumstances of other people. If you lead a life like that, I look up to you,” Rabada told City Press’ sister publication Rapport on Friday.
At 23, that is exactly how the superstar Proteas’ bowler is trying to live his life.
When he was small, his father Mpho took him and his little brother Atlegang to the poorest part of Johannesburg to share their old clothes, shoes and toys with children who had less than them. When he eventually began earning his own money – and became a cricket hero and role model for thousands in the process – he kept going back to that place for a handshake and a piece of advice.
He wants to remind people that there are beautiful stories in the world.
That his story is one of those is beyond dispute. He became a T20 Protea at 19 and bowled a hat-trick during his first international one-day match as a 20-year-old.
He flattened the English batting order by his fourth test, with figures of 13/144 and, at 21, he became the first player to win six awards at Cricket SA’s annual prize-giving ceremony. Two weeks ago, he did that for the second time.
And then, at the age of 22 years and 231 days, he became the youngest man to occupy the number one position on the world ranking list for bowlers. At that point, nobody doubted that the stars were within his reach.
Rabada has dreamt for years that he would achieve this kind of success in the green and gold. But the little boy who hoped he would become the world’s best has since realised the truth to the famous line from the Spiderman comics: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
“Of course it’s really nice to be number one on the world ranking list and I dreamt about that for many years, but I look at it differently now.
He said: “After all, it’s just a title. For me, cricket is my career, not my whole life, so my position on the world ranking list does not define who I am. But it does give me a greater ability to inspire people, and that’s valuable. But I’ve already learnt that cricket keeps you humble. You can’t walk around with your head in the clouds and you can’t let what happens on the field go to your head.”
Despite his enormous successes to date, Rabada does not see himself as a finished product.
“When you’re on the international stage, you have limitations and I’m striving to have no limitations. I spend a lot of time learning new things and improving myself as a cricket player. I quite like taking myself out of my comfort zone because that’s where you learn the most. And if you don’t do it, then you’re going to get stuck. I don’t want to get stuck,” he said.
That he’s always had the space and opportunities to push himself out of his comfort zone is not something Rabada is trying to deny. As the eldest son of a medical doctor and an attorney, nothing stopped him from chasing his dreams. He realises that. The St Stithians College blazer in his closet underlines that fact.
But Rabada makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be tied to a silver-spoon-in-the-mouth narrative for the rest of his life.
“Once you’ve reached the highest level, there is no such thing as a silver spoon. Either you’re good enough or you’re not; you don’t get anything on a platter. Before that, yes, I had all the opportunities and I won’t lie, I got the best. I’m sure there are more talented people than me who haven’t had the opportunity to develop the way that I have.
“Then again, opportunities can be handed down to you, but not hard work. I had a dream for a long time and I put everything into making it come true. It didn’t just happen.”
Of course, no interview with Rabada would be complete without questions about the controversy during Australia’s recent tour to South Africa.
After taking the wicket of Aussie captain Steve Smith during the second test in Port Elizabeth, a boisterous Rabada’s shoulder made contact with Smith’s. The young bowler was initially suspended for two tests, but a successful appeal gave him a second chance.
Rabada admits that he learnt lessons in the anxious days before the appeal.
“I realised that I needed to look at the way I do certain things on the field, and I have to stay calmer. I have to channel my passion on the field in different ways. I’m not too stressed about it. I know I’m not as aggressive as I sometimes seem when I take a wicket. Actually, I’m quite relaxed. I’m just passionate.”
Rabada has not played cricket since the Australian series because a back injury forced him out of the Indian Premier League.
He is glad it happened, he says.
“I was half expecting it. Over the past three years, I’ve done almost nothing but play cricket, and your body takes a beating. But I’ve come out of this unscathed and I’ve realised that I need to do a few things differently – not necessarily in respect of my bowling technique – but how I prepare, cool off and possibly how long my run-up is. Things like that.
“I’m quite excited, I like solving problems and this is something that requires a solution.”
The upcoming series against Sri Lanka, which awaits the Proteas next month, will again give Rabada the chance to come up with solutions. And, of course, like everything else in his life, the opportunity to inspire.