At the end of the third Test against England, South African captain Faf du Plessis described the visiting top order as doing “a boring job”.
He immediately added to that, noting that they were prepared to see off the new ball and set up the game for more fluent stroke-players who are housed in the middle order. In many ways, “boring” was a compliment to their discipline, and an awareness of their role in the team.
South Africa’s batsmen — and management — would pay good money for a boring day, one free of the drama and rush-hour traffic that seems to herald each innings. So, too, would the best player in the Proteas team, Quinton de Kock.
He is the rock upon which so much is built, and South Africa’s future in all formats is banking on the left-hander being the adaptable foundation — on top of everything he already is to the team.
He is the rebuilder and the liberator, the rioter and rewriter of scripts. And he is expected to carry out these roles far too often. The world is familiar with De Kock the dominant, De Kock the dashing, the delightful and the deliriously talented.
Now, for their immediate future, South African cricket is asking him to become De Kock the dutiful. They want him to marry his outrageous instincts, behind and in front of the stumps, with a considered approach to leadership. They want him – need him – to take on more and start leading South Africa into a new dawn. Faf du Plessis, like his contemporaries, will not be around forever.
Test cricket crossroads
In Test cricket, South Africa is at a desperately low ebb. A particular strength of the country’s cricket has always been its resilience; its innate ability to soak up pressure, ignore accusing fingers, repel on-field opposition and find a way into the light.
Currently, the South African batting unit is experiencing stage 10 load shedding and there are but flickers of a spark.
The false dawn that was the first Test win of Mark Boucher’s tenure as national coach has since been overcast by the scale of the problems facing South African cricket. Much has been written about what has occurred off the field, but matches are still played and won by countries with far more pressing circumstances.
The great South African teams of the past 15 years have been built around strong batting leaders. With Du Plessis experiencing a red-ball run famine, Dean Elgar’s scoring sporadic, Aiden Markram injured and too many others still making their way into the international game, the onus is on Quinton de Kock to be a man of many gears.
The comparison has often been made between De Kock and Australia’s great Test hurricane at seven, Adam Gilchrist, and, to a lesser extent in this series, England’s Ben Stokes. The similarities are there, because all three have entertained cricket observers gloriously.
“He has matured his game and he has different levels. He is such an unbelievable player. Having an X-factor player in your team is such a massive thing, because you can blow the opposition away,” Du Plessis acknowledged.
The player he was referring to was Stokes, but it was a question around De Kock. That is how those in the highest offices of the game in this country want to talk of De Kock, as the mature maestro who has an answer for every cricket question posed to him in the middle.
That is what special players do.
They go to places that middle-order men in the game, past and present, seldom visit without a boarding pass of genius. They take the breath away and knock the stuffing out of attacks that think they have prised open the trapdoor to the tail.
For Gilchrist, that role was far easier, given that he was batting behind perhaps the most powerful top six of contemporary times. Often, he would walk to the crease at comfortably more than 200 for five, and then have the licence to thrash.
Stokes, too, often bats from a launch pad created by his “boring” top order. If you asked him, De Kock probably can’t remember when last he walked to the crease and swatted freely, with little consideration for the match situation.
The current batting fragility means his lapses in concentration have become illuminated. Much is expected of a man who has been blessed with such natural talent, but the weight of the “top-order tax” he has been forced to pay in settling the bills of those that came before has severely curtailed his play.
Gloves must come off
That is De Kock’s burden, however, and he will soon have to relinquish the gloves with which he is so accomplished to direct all his energy towards making a mountain of runs for his country. He must be the centre of it all, and he must be given every chance to succeed at the one thing he does better than most.
De Kock is one of the precious few that can strike genuine fear into opponents, because he can change the course of a match in just an hour.
In the Port Elizabeth Test, he walked to the crease in the first innings with Mark Wood throwing missiles and Dom Bess spinning a web. Immediately, he looked as if he was batting on a different surface, turning obdurate defence into fluent attack. He was at ease, displaying a chasm not dissimilar to the one Stokes sometimes creates between himself and the English batting card.
Both superstars, South Africa needs more from De Kock. Much more. Stokes harvested 120 runs from four and a half hours at the crease, soaking up the pressure and transferring that toil to the South African bowlers. De Kock eased his way to 63 after nearly three hours at the crease, before falling to a shot that was simply not tight enough in early morning defence against the new ball on the fourth morning.
Fifties, however eye-catching, don’t win matches. Hundreds do.
De Kock’s side needs him to graduate into a player who wins series almost single-handedly, one who has summers that are recalled fondly for his feats. Stokes had the summer of 2019. The Ashes of 2005 are remembered for what Andrew Flintoff did.
Brian Lara in the 1990s was often a one-man batting show for the West Indies, Sachin Tendulkar went on tours where he stood and starred alone. De Kock is so lavishly gifted that he can look at those as examples, and then look at himself and ask what he wants out of this game beyond riches, global friends and fans, and stamps on his passport.
“Quinny at number six or seven has won so many games for us. It is important for us as a batting unit to set it up and allow players like that to play with freedom,” Du Plessis said of his talisman.
While De Kock can certainly be more than a rescue act, he now needs to be the inspiration that takes his men out of the doldrums and places them back at the highest table. He is that good, but he needs some of the shackles that restrict his abilities removed.
South African cricket has a lot of issues and a dearth of depth, but one area that is well-stocked is keepers who can bat. Kyle Verreynne or Sinethemba Qeshile could assume the number seven role and stay behind the stumps, with aplomb.
De Kock is often preoccupied with wicket-keeping, on top of everything else. Free of the gloves, he has the capacity to inspire with his batting feats – and will need to because he has been chosen as the next leader of South African cricket. Handed a massive job, the new one-day international captain is better equipped for leadership than most casual observers give him credit for.
He has grown massively in stature around the changing room. Those who know his cricket brain acknowledge a keen feel for the nuances of the longer format, as well as an instinct for opportunity in white-ball cricket.
He was emboldened in the brief period he worked with Lance Klusener, who was the Proteas’ Twenty20 batting consultant for the tour of India before becoming head coach of Afghanistan. Klusener is widely hailed as having one of South Africa’s clearest minds at the crease and De Kock lapped up the simplicity with which the legend approached batting and the game at large.
De Kock is also acutely aware of his ambassadorial responsibilities. He shares a strong bond with the other talisman in the side, Kagiso Rabada, and is perfectly placed to challenge Rabada to do more because the standards De Kock will have to set with the bat can only spur on his bowling spearhead.
Between them, South Africa has two absolute champions, both experienced enough to be more than just promising talent but young enough to shift the goalposts and aim for legendary status. They have to lead now – one with bat, the other with ball. Their country needs them more than ever before.
This article was first published by New Frame