“I’ve sat in a lot of team meetings and the more the opposition talks about a certain batter or bowler, the more you are in their heads and the more you are ahead of them in the game. Someone like Anrich would have been someone they would have spoken about,” Simons said from South Africa’s hotel in Delhi, where they are preparing to play their first match of the competition against Sri Lanka. “Likewise, with Kagiso. He is one of our key members.”
While steering away from naming Rabada as the leader of the attack – a title Simons said he does not understand the reasons for giving someone – he spoke to Rabada’s 92 ODI caps as being crucial to South Africa’s chances of intimidating opposition line-ups. “Kagiso is someone with a lot of experience and someone the opposition respects, so getting him up to speed and getting him bowling at his best is not just important for him but for us as a unit.”
And that is the rub of it. Rabada had not had the opportunity to be at his best for South Africa in ODIs this year – he has only played five of their 12 ODIs this year – and has also not been at his best in big tournaments. Again, the sample size is small, but telling.
Rabada has only played one 50-over World Cup and his performance mirrored South Africa’s: it was underwhelming. He played all nine of South Africa’s group games in 2019 and took 11 wickets at 36.09. In the context of the team’s performance it was not that bad: Rabada had the same number of wickets as Imran Tahir and Andile Phehlukwayo, and only two fewer than their leading wicket-taker, Chris Morris, but against his international peers it was poor. Mitchell Starc was the tournament’s leading bowler with 27 wickets. Among the headline quicks around the circuit Lockie Ferguson, Jofra Archer, Jasprit Bumrah, Mark Wood, Mohammad Amir, Trent Boult, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Chris Woakes, Mohammed Shami, Matt Henry and Pat Cummins had better tournaments than Rabada.
Similarly, Rabada has not shot the lights out at the T20 World Cups he has been involved in. At last year’s T20 World Cup, he took only two wickets in five games and at his first event, in India in 2016, he claimed five wickets in three matches and had an economy rate of 10.71. The only exception was the UAE in 2021 where Rabada took eight wickets in five matches at 19.37 on the back of finishing as the leading bowler in the IPL in the UAE in late 2020. Since then, Rabada’s IPL form has also dipped. In 2021, he took 15 wickets in 15 matches and averaged over 30, in 2022 he took 23 wickets in 13 matches and conceded at 8.45 runs to the over and this year, played only six matches, took seven wickets, averaged 33.14 and bled 10.08 runs an over.
It’s fair to say big tournaments have not brought big results for Rabada but has it been bothering him? “We’ve not spoken specifically about World Cups,” Simons said. “He wants to be the best he can possibly be. We had a long conversation about tactics to be used at the death in India, for example. It’s a constant learning process and every day is about being little better than he was yesterday.”
Sisanda Magala’s absence after being ruled out of the tournament with a knee niggle means that South Africa also need someone who can do a job at the end of innings. From Simons’ comments, it seems Rabada has taken on the task himself, adding to his duties as chief aggressor. That’s where Coetzee will come in, albeit with a word of warning. “He is someone who can bowl constantly at 140kph-plus, which is important in any conditions,” Simons said. “But someone is going to punch him in the nose at some point. I have no doubt about it. That’s what this game is about, particularly in India.”
Fast pitches and small grounds may mean the ball leaves the bat as quickly as Coetzee can deliver it but Simons is hopeful he will learn quickly. “He faced a good test against Australia and an extremely aggressive batting line up. It was good to see him come through it and come up with ideas and plans,” Simons said. “He is a very intelligent young cricketer. He understands his game and he contributes a lot especially in bowling meetings. It’s going to be a steep learning curve for him but he is somebody with the material and resources to handle it.”
And while Coetzee’s pace is the aspect of his game everyone is eager to see, Simons hinted there are other parts of his skill set that could be equally exciting. “One of the things that is going to be important in Indian conditions is pace-off deliveries and he has got a delivery that is quite effective. In the Australia series, he bowled Alex Carey with a legcutter and you could see it surprised everyone. Once you’ve got opposition talking about it, you’re winning a bit of a battle.”
Build-ups to World Cup campaigns are often preoccupied with chatter about the players who have not made it the tournament – players like Nortje. As South Africa’s opener draws closer, the conversation could and should move to the bowlers who have made the trip and impact the likes of Rabada and Coetzee could have.