Kagiso Rabada is enjoying yet another successful IPL. The South African pacer has rarely fared poorly on the big stage, which means fans sometimes take his performances for granted.
But make no mistake, Rabada is a once-in-a-generation bowler and he is showing exactly why in this edition of the Indian Premier League being held in the UAE.
After nine matches, the Delhi Daredevils right-arm quick is the leading wicket-taker with 19. His economy is a touch under eight an over, which means he is averaging two wickets a match for not a lot of runs. That is similar to his 2019 returns, when he snared 25 wickets from 12 matches at an economy of 7.8.
So whether the world's most lucrative cricket league is held in its home of India or overseas, Rabada tends to have his fill. Especially if it's the UAE.
Back in 2014, a teenaged Rabada announced his arrival on the big stage during the U19 World Cup held in the Emirates. Back then he took 14 wickets in five matches, including a superb burst of 6-25 in the semi-final against Australia, to propel the Proteas to the title. Even as a teenager, it was clear Rabada was the real deal.
Six years later, and back to where it all started, Rabada continues to deliver on that early promise.
"Yes, the UAE has always been a great place for me," the 25-year-old quick told The National.
"The U19 World Cup is also a fantastic memory for me. It seems like such a long time ago, but it was a very important tournament for me, no doubt."
It's a bit different this time, though. A near three-month long tournament with matches against some of the finest players of this generation is challenging in itself. Doing that in three venues – Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah – means the equation changes drastically compared to India, a place the players have grown accustomed to.
"Well, in India you play in a whole bunch of venues, where one surface is different from the other. For example, Kotla, which is Delhi's home ground, is a slow one. But Bangalore is not," Rabada explains.
"Here there's just three pitches, and they are all quite different from each other. Sharjah is known to be a high scoring ground, compared to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But you see, even among these three venues, the nature of the pitch has changed so much as the tournament has progressed.
"The totals have come down in Sharjah, and chasing is tough, like it was for us in the game against Chennai. The three pitches here are all being used back to back and they've slowed down no doubt from the time we started."
That has not stopped Rabada from excelling, though. The highlight of his tournament so far came in his first match, against Kings XI Punjab. First his 2-28 forced the match into a Super Over and from there he snared 2-2 to seal the game for Delhi.
Fastest bowlers of IPL 2020
Rabada is something of a specialist when it comes to bowling at the death or the Super Over. He bowled Delhi to victory in the other Super Over he bowled – against Kolkata Knight Riders in Delhi last year. It seems to all come naturally to the Gauteng pacer.
"It's been two Super Overs for me for Delhi Capitals so far. There is pressure, no doubt. For me, it's also a lot about how I'm feeling on the given day to be able to handle that pressure. Like, which of my deliveries should I be backing that day – that sort of a thing. If I'm feeling like it's a day for yorkers, then I should be backing up that feeling with its execution on the field."
For the record, he went all yorkers in 2019 and changed it up this year in the one-over eliminator.
Two factors have helped Rabada perform at his best this year. The first is the extended and enforced break due to the coronavirus pandemic. While most cricketers struggled with rustiness, the break came at just the right time for the 25-year-old who was beginning to lose his edge the previous season after being entrusted with bowling in all formats for South Africa almost without a break.
"For me, the time during the lockdown away from cricket was brilliant, and to be honest, I was in no rush to get back. I'd played non-stop cricket for about 5-6 years, so my body and my mind really needed the break."
The other factor is his compatriot and fellow Delhi Capitals strike bowler Anrich Nortje. The right-arm quick has matched Rabada for pace and impact; he bowled the fastest delivery recorded in IPL history at 97mph. And 'KG' is enjoying every bit of it.
"Anrich has been bowling really well and really fast. It's been amazing to bowl with him, we learn from each other, and discuss a lot of technical stuff. Does it allow me to be more attacking? Well, that would depend on the situation we are in, in that particular match, and how [captain] Shreyas [Iyer] goes about using us."
It seems like business as usual for Rabada. But there is one big difference – the absence of fans. The IPL brand has been built on not just top-quality cricket but deafening noise from packed stadiums. The pandemic has taken that aspect out of the conversation.
And while broadcasters have tried their best to create an atmosphere by playing crowd noise on a loop, playing at empty venues is challenging, says Rabada.
"There is a massive difference when you have fans in the stadium. There is an amazing atmosphere, and those fans are the ones we play for, isn't it? But this year, the circumstances obviously are different. When there's a 4 or 6, or a wicket, you hear the applause which is pre-recorded. Of course it's not quite the same thing, but the organisers have done their best. I believe all of us are fortunate to be doing what we love doing the most, which is playing cricket, and the fans are at least getting to catch the action on TV."
Life beyond cricket
Cricketers tends to live in their bubble, bio-secure or otherwise, and general life seems to pass them by during their playing days. Exploring the world and understanding its dynamics is an often overlooked by athletes, even though they have a relatively short shelf life. While Rabada is on top of his game, with at least six to seven more years of solid cricket left in him, he is dabbling in the world of business through content creation.
"I like to keep myself engaged with things other than cricket. So for instance, during the lockdown, I started working on this podcast with my friend," he says.
"Even after coming to Dubai, I keep myself engaged with that. Now I am trying to understand the business side of things also. It's something that keeps my mind engaged other than sport, it's very important for me."
The podcast is called Viral Wellness, aimed at exploring the challenges posed by the pandemic and possible solutions. It's a different kind of challenge for Rabada which he should enjoy, like everything else cricket has thrown at him.