Ben Jones examines how one of the world’s best all-format bowlers has found early wickets hard to come by.
Kagiso Rabada is a superstar. An elite international bowler, the South African is everything you could ever want from a quick: accurate, rapid, and with an enjoyably fiery temper to boot. In the IPL, they’ve all but named the Purple Cap – the award for most wickets in a season – after Rabada. Since the start of 2019, nobody has more IPL wickets.
As you would expect for a bowler of Rabada’s all-format prowess, he’s also among the most established Powerplay bowlers in the competition. In the last three editions of the tournament, only five bowlers have bowled more deliveries in that phase of the game than Rabada, the South African sending down 258 balls since the start of the 2018 IPL. With the ball brand new, the opportunity for Test skills to come to the fore is clear.
What’s surprising then, is that Rabada’s Powerplay record in the IPL is really quite poor. Since the start of the 2019 season, there have been 50 players that have bowled at least 10 Powerplay overs in the IPL. Within that group, Rabada’s strike rate of 43 ranks 39th. He has not once taken more than a single wicket in an IPL Powerplay.
This is clearly a shock. We know that Rabada is taking a huge number of wickets for Delhi, but as we can see on the graphic below, the distribution of those wickets is quite peculiar. Given he bowls more than a third of his deliveries in the Powerplay, a comparatively low proportion of his wickets come in this phase. A disproportionate number of Rabada’s wickets come later in the innings, particularly in the death overs, and while those interventions can still be absolutely crucial – removing a set batsman in the final overs is clearly hugely important – we can all recognise that on average the value of a wicket in T20 decreases as the innings goes on.
These sort of quirks can happen, in statistical records. Rabada could be creating huge amounts of early pressure and plenty of chances in the Powerplay, but with edges just going wide of the fielder, balls missing rather than taking the edge, or fielders spilling opportunities. However, in this instance, that’s not what is going on – Rabada consistently doesn’t create chances early on. His false shot percentage in IPL Powerplays is 18%, below the 20% average we see for all bowlers in the phase – among that group of 50, he ranks 29th by this measure. Equally, he’s only had one catch dropped off his bowling in this time.
Another potential reason for Rabada’s low threat in the Powerplay is a product of batting intent. Rabada’s reputation, as one of the most fearsome all-format bowlers in the world, changes the approach of the batsmen to whom he’s bowling. Compared to other new ball bowlers, teams are willing to ‘play him out’. Just 41% of Rabada’s Powerplay deliveries have drawn an attacking shot over the last three IPL seasons; in that group of 50, Rabada ranks 44th for how often batsmen attack. To an extent, teams are content to take fewer risks against him, which partially explains his sub-par false shot percentage, and very poor strike rate. It’s also important to note that this doesn’t translate into control for Delhi – Rabada’s economy rate (7.6rpo) is only marginally below the 7.9rpo average for all bowlers in the phase.
When we look for context outside of these tournaments, as to whether Rabada’s record is likely to improve, we get an unclear picture. His performances with the new ball in ODI cricket are much more impressive, a strike rate of 43 in the first 10 overs, while not outstanding, is right up there with the best established bowlers in the world. However, Rabada’s T20 strike rate away from the IPL sends us mixed messages. While he’s been excellent in both versions of South African domestic T20 (the Mzansi Super League and its forerunner, the CSA T20 Challenge) as well as the Blast in England, his T20I record is more in line with what we’ve seen for Delhi. We should be reticent to dismiss Rabada’s record in these leagues, the point remains that more than half of his matches (47/84) in the last five years have been for South Africa or Delhi, and he’s found Powerplay wicket-taking difficult for both.
For South Africa, one thing that stands out is how little Rabada moves the ball off the seam. In T20I Powerplays since the start of 2018, he averages 0.47° of movement. Of established bowlers in this phase (those to bowl 100+ deliveries), only Chris Jordan and Fahim Ashraf have a lower degree of deviation off the pitch. While Rabada’s new ball lengths – for South Africa, and for Delhi – are pretty typical for a bowler of his speed, his seam movement is significantly lower than you’d expect. This may seem like nit-picking, but the discussion of Rabada’s red ball skills often leans on the idea that he can swing and seam the new ball at will – for the latter, that simply isn’t true.
Regardless of the reason, the absence of early wickets means that Rabada’s effectiveness in the Powerplay is severely affected. While he has a positive Average Bowling Impact in the other two phases of the game, his Powerplay record is significantly worse than we’d expect not just of him, but of a typical bowler.
Yet fundamentally, this still feels like a case of when, not if. People are always eager to say that excellent red ball players will eventually come good in T20, that their quality will shine through. This is often not the case, and patronises the shorter format, but in this instance it looks a fair assessment. Despite his lack of seam movement, it is reasonable to expect Rabada’s other ‘raw skills’, as they are so often termed, to threaten. His speed, his ability to swing the ball, and to nail his yorker, are not insignificant weapons. He is still, remarkably, only 25 years old, and his understanding of how to deploy those weapons should only grow.
A look at Trent Boult’s recent trajectory may offer some succour to the South African. An excellent red ball and ODI bowler who had, relatively speaking, struggled in the IPL, Boult moved from inconsistent Delhi to the behemoth that is Mumbai Indians. 2020 brought record-breaking numbers for the Kiwi, confounding his previous performances as part of a lean, organised attack at the top of its game. What was behind Boult’s transformation is unclear, but be it experience, batsmen taking him lightly, being part of a stronger bowling group, or simply a good chunk of well-deserved luck, things did pick up.
It would be highly surprising were Rabada not able to turn things around in a similar way, and considering his quality in other phases, he’s going to be given ample opportunity to do so. For now though, the start of the innings is still the final piece to fall into place for Rabada’s T20 puzzle.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.