Ben Jones analyses the meteoric rise of Kagiso Rabada, who this week became the World No.1 Test bowler for the first time.
Anyone who has seen the rise of Kagiso Rabada in the past two years has witnessed something truly special. Arriving at the top of the game ready-made as a world class cricketer, the 22 year-old has rapidly evolved into everything you could possibly want in an elite sportsman. A genuinely fast, prodigiously skilled pace bowler; a fiery, passionate cricketer who plays on the b-of-the-ban; an athletic fielder, and more than capable batsman. All that, as well as being a black South African in the age of transformation.
All of his skill and passion add up to make Rabada a tremendously effective Test match bowler. Since his debut, no other bowler has drawn a false shot as often as him, with 20.4% of his deliveries either passing the bat or taking the edge, compared to a global average of 14% in that time. Only Ravichandran Ashwin has taken more wickets than him, with no other seamer even in the top five. His prodigious talent is already producing extraordinary results.
However, amidst controversy regarding his disciplinary record, and considerations of his importance to the next generation of black South African cricketers, the actual technical make-up of his game is often left unmentioned. In an effort to address this, we’ve used CricViz data to exemplify the vast array of skills Rabada has already mastered, and how they have contributed to his rapid rise.
What adds to the thrill of watching the young South African go about his work is that he is so clearly not a one-trick pony. His success isn’t built around one or two excellent traits – the raw speed of a young Shaun Tait, the skittish unpredictability of Steven Finn – but on an all-round game which should see him continue his success across all formats, all over the world. Rabada’s genius (and make no mistake, it is genius) is that he is can be every kind of bowler a captain could wish for. His rivals for the title of best quick bowler in the world have more easily demarked identities (Starc the toe-crusher, Anderson the polished gentleman of swing, Hasan the middle-overs merchant), but none have as many bases covered as the young man from Johannesburg.
Since he made his debut in late 2015, not one bowler has managed to surpass Rabada on all three of the main fast bowling metrics; seam movement, swing movement, and speed.
Of those to play 10 Tests in the time Rabada has beenperforming at the top level, only seven have averaged more seam movement, only eight have averaged more swing, and only four have been faster – but nobody has managed all three. Not one of Starc, Gabriel, Yadav or Cummins has matched the 0.878° lateral movement and the 0.585° deviation off the pitch which Rabada has found with the red ball. This combination of pace and movement allows him to flourish with speed when the pitch allows, or with lateral movement when atmospheric conditions are in his favour.
IN, OUT, SHAKE IT ALL ABOUT
Of course, it’s not simply finding swing which is difficult, but using it effectively, and hence the delight for fans of Rabada that he is already proficient at moving the ball both ways. Indeed, no bowler can rely on either their in-swinger or out-swinger to take wickets as regularly as Rabada, as shown in the graphic below. Test bowlers can have entire careers whilst only being able to swing the ball away from the left-hander, and into the right-hander, but the South African has gone some way to mastering the art before his 23rd birthday.
IGNORE THE STUMPS, USE THE CREASE
One common misconception about bowling in all cricket is quite how rarely bowlers target the stumps. In our entire ball-tracking database, just 11.3% of deliveries from fast bowlers in Tests would have gone on to hit the stumps. Indeed, Tests in South Africa see fast bowlers target the stumps with only 9.1% of balls, less than anywhere else with the exception of New Zealand. Perhaps growing up in this environment has affected Rabada’s style, because of the 20 fast bowlers to play 10 Tests since Rabada came onto the scene, only Morne Morkel and Steven Finn target the stumps less than Rabada. The 22 year-old is more than 6cm shorter than both of those men, the extreme height of Morkel and Finn offering a fair explanation of their low figures.
So, if Rabada isn’t targeting the stumps, how is he forcing batsmen to play? In particular, how is getting right-handers to play, and why is he so prolific against them? After all, the 91 wickets he’s collected against right-handers, at an average of just 17.41, makes Rabada their most deadly hunter since he debuted.
A key factor in his effectiveness is that on top of his physical attributes and skillset, Rabada appears to be an intelligent bowler, who exploits the full range of options available to him. Of the right-arm seam bowlers to play 10 matches since Rabada’s debut, only Ben Stokes, Jason Holder, and Stuart Broad have a wider release on the crease.
Of those three, only Stokes ends up with the ball arriving tighter into the right-hander. Thus, the angle which Rabada creates to the right-hander is more extreme than almost any other, targeting the batsmen whose pads are threatened by potential in-swing, and whose edge is threatened by potential away swing. The wider release point exacerbates the benefits of being able to move the ball both ways, and makes him a terror to face.
CHALLENGING GOOD PLAYERS
Alongside Rabada, the other standout bowler in the Test series between South Africa and Australia has been Mitchell Starc, who also rivals KG for the world No.1 bowler ranking. However, whilst Starc has developed a reputation for devastating effectiveness against the tail-enders, Rabada has been world class against top-order batsmen.
All wickets are important of course, and Starc’s ability to skittle through the lower-order is vitally important to the strategy of his team, but being able to regularly dismiss the top seven batsmen in a team, at an average of 24.75, is truly world-class. Starc’s average of 29.22 against the top order since Rabada’s debut is hardly unimpressive, but the effectiveness of the young South African against the highest quality opponents cannot be ignored when evaluating his status as the best in the business.
PRODUCING RESULTS, WITHOUT LUCK
You could be forgiven for thinking that such excellence by a man so young would require a healthy portion of luck, but there is no evidence to suggest that’s the case for Rabada. 80% of the chances off his bowling have been caught, compared to a global average of 81% across the span of his career, which suggests he’s not particularly fortunate or unfortunate, and that his incredible output of wickets is purely testament to his ability and performance. Equally, as the table below shows, the catch success rate off his bowling is bang average when compared to others top Test performers.
All in all, Kagiso Rabada is an immensely talented, supremely skillful and intelligent bowler, who has the methodology to be a world-beater for years and years to come. This may be the first time he has ascended to No.1 in the rankings, but I sincerely doubt it’ll be the last.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz. @benjones_13