It was 2014, the Under 19 Cricket World Cup, and Rabada was en route to 14 wickets that led South Africa to victory. Steyn, watching from home, took note. “He stood out head and shoulders above everybody else,” he tells ICC.
Twelve months later Steyn was left flat on his back, staring in disbelief into a starry Antipodean sky, another ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup semi-final having slipped from South Africa’s grasp. Rabada joined the team later that year and, since becoming his teammate, Steyn’s admiration for ‘KG’ has only grown.
“He’s a natural athlete,” the 35-year-old enthuses. “He could be a basketball player, he could be a sprinter, he could be anything. And when you put a cricket ball in his hand you quickly realise that this is what he was put on earth to do. It’s amazing. You don’t have to teach him anything, it just comes naturally to him.” There is a touch of awe in his voice. “There’s not much more you can say about it. He’s just got it all.”
Coming from South Africa’s leading Test wicket-taker, and the man who has spent more time at the top of the MRF Tyres ICC Test Bowling Rankings than any other, it’s dizzying praise. And the feeling is mutual. “Dale’s action is so simple and uncomplicated,” says Rabada, 11 years Steyn’s junior. “When you’re around quality like that, you just watch.”
Watching has served Rabada well. The 24-year-old already has 106 ODI wicket and faint whispers he might become South Africa’s greatest bowler are abound. But Steyn waves them aside as meaningless. How can we judge ‘greatest ever’, he asks? Using stats? “That’s boring,” he says. “We play in a different time to players who played in the past. Right now he’s killing people,” he stops, and laughs. “Not physically! I mean he’s cleaning up. And that’s good enough for me. He’s so good.”
There might have been something in that slip of the tongue. Because both Steyn and Rabada possess a borderline-frightening intensity, a white-hot fire that almost convinces you they would like to knock the batsman’s head off. It is unleashed most vividly when they take wickets: roaring, eyes bulging, fists pumping.
“It’s all part of being a fast bowler,” says Steyn. “You can’t be doing something at 100 miles an hour and not expect some kind of crash result. Especially when you get a wicket. It is like driving 100 miles an hour on the highway and if you don’t get a wicket you just keep going, but if you hit into somebody – I mean take a wicket – there’s gonna be some kind of a result. That’s what fast bowlers are about.”
Rabada says he feeds off Steyn’s fire. “It really does inspire you. Especially if you get worked up and you’re patriotic and you’re playing against England or something and he’s there getting these guys out, you’re like, ‘Yes!’”
And so to England, where Rabada and Steyn will charge in together for the first time in a World Cup, straining every sinew to lay hold of that shimmering, elusive trophy. For Steyn, it is potentially a last hurrah; for Rabada a first shot at glory. And both just want to get on with it. “I don’t know how to feel, honestly,” says Rabada. “We’ve been chatting about it, there’s been good team spirit, and we’re believing. And now all that’s left to do is to play. So I think we just need to get playing. That’s it.”
By Harry Normanton