Cape Town – Kagiso Rabada is so good, and so constantly in demand, that it could become an unwitting, increasing threat to his long-term fitness and sustainability.
The rise and rise of the mere 21-year-old has been one of few Proteas bright aspects of an otherwise conspicuously humdrum last year or so for the national team, and he is expected to do a bit of a clean-up – rightly so -- at Cricket South Africa’s annual awards banquet in Johannesburg on July 26.
Rabada has already played all of 42 times for his country across the three formats, since making his debut in a Twenty20 international against Australia at Adelaide in November 2014, and looks pretty much un-droppable in each case.
The blissfully lithe, notably mature-before-his-time paceman will be a busy presence again this season – the Test side clicks into unusually early local action with a mini-series against New Zealand during August – as the Proteas seek to return to much loftier global rankings, across the board.
And therein, perhaps, lies a potential snag: South Africa will be flying in the face of conventional modern wisdom if they persist for too much longer with fielding Rabada prolifically in Tests, ODIs and T20 contests.
International cricket, on an ever more relentless, jam-packed itinerary, requires special levels of mental and physical energy and it has become much more the custom among premier powers to pigeon-hole fast bowlers particularly -- given the unique demands on their bodies – into one, or a maximum of two, of the formats for national-team purposes.
And if there isn’t that specific separation of format duties, there is at least very delicate management of workloads involving plenty of “rotation” of individuals.
When England last played a Test match, against Sri Lanka at Lord’s recently, their main pace arsenal was Messrs Anderson, Broad, Finn and Woakes; the last ODI they played (also against the Lankans) saw Woakes the only common denominator – the other designated quicks were Willey, Jordaan and Plunkett.
Similarly Australia are much more averse these days to pushing out the same strike bowlers across the codes: the pace surnames in their last Test match (against New Zealand in Christchurch toward the end of last season) were Hazlewood, Pattinson and Bird, whereas their last ODI – the final of the recent tri-series in the Caribbean – saw only Hazlewood “survive”, and joined by Messrs Starc and Coulter-Nile.
There is also considerable further juggling of pace resources for T20 internationals by those countries, and others.
The unique issue the Proteas have is that not only is Rabada currently their most consistently attractive pace factor to deploy, in every arena, but he is also an obvious, magnificent poster figure for transformation, a key department especially when you consider strong recent pressures from government.
Rabada boasts 24 wickets at an average 24.70 from six Tests, 37 scalps at 21.45 from 20 ODIs, and 22 at 22.63 from 16 T20 clashes for SA.
But burnout is an ever-present danger in world cricket these days, and a clear plan is likely to have to be developed quite smartly to preserve Rabada’s freshness for the long haul: he clearly has the potential to be a core element of national plans on biggest occasions for at least a decade, and perhaps more, to come.
He is likely to only get better – and quicker, too? -- in the next handful of years, provided that he is not turned into some sort of overworked, dull and metronomic carthorse through indelicate, constant usage.
CSA insist they are well aware of this.
The organisation’s chief executive Haroon Lorgat, understandably also an admirer of Rabada’s rapid advances, told Sport24: “We do monitor his workload and we are very, very conscious that we don’t want to overburden him.
“He is young and he is still developing; never mind his cricket, his entire body is still developing. So we do monitor him carefully.
“There was one point not long ago where it was intended that he be rested, but there were injuries in the camp and there was just no choice (but to field him). But his load is managed … so even in practice, for example, he is not asked to do too much bowling.
“In match situations he is also managed, so we can get the right intensity from him when (it matters most).
“Let me tell you how good a mind he has got: he was offered to go to this year’s Indian Premier League and when we sat him down we explained that at this stage of his career it would be better for him to sample some cricket in English conditions – remember we have a lot of cricket there next year (Champions Trophy, plus full series against the home nation).
“He is one of those rare individuals who is prepared to sacrifice short-term gain for long-time success. So he gave up the IPL possibility for a stint in England (with Kent).”
Lorgat concurs that “KG” is an inspiring role model for aspirant young cricketers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Yes, you could easily just sell and sell (that fact). But we ensure we are responsible and considered in his management, because we want him available to us on a properly long-term basis.
“As soon as our monitoring detects that he is getting into a ‘red zone’, we know it is time to rest him. It is incumbent on us to manage him … he is a gem.
“He’s already heading our attack, if you look at the way AB (de Villiers) uses him. He’s a go-to guy.”
Go-to is great; here’s hoping it doesn’t lead to some sort of cruel “go” from international combat on the grounds of rank fatigue or unwanted morphing into some kind of aching trundler …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing