Quinton de Kock, back from a mental health break, slammed a breathtaking 141 in the first Test against West Indies to lead South Africa to an innings win. Rohit Sankar points out that he sorely needs support.
It’s an age-old comparison every wicketkeeper batting lower down the order has had to deal with since a certain Adam Gilchrist stormed Test cricket in the early 2000s with a swag few had seen from ‘keepers until that point. Unlike a lot of the others, the comparison fits Quinton de Kock like a glove.
The man smashes bowling to bits when in the mood, jumps around to take ridiculous catches, and is easily good enough to be the new-age Gilchrist, a lower middle-order force that complements the top and middle-order. What could go wrong? Oh, yeah, South Africa don’t really much of a batting before him. So, de Kock is basically the Ricky Ponting — Australia’s run-machine in the Gilchrist era — and the Gilchrist in the same line-up.
Only two days back, de Kock walked in at 113-3, saw his side slip to 162-5, and went about his work like he always would. Against stronger batting units, South Africa’s totals have been unimpressive in the recent past. Here, de Kock decides to uncage the beast he often has to keep on a leash because of the added responsibility. He blasts 85 of the last 100 runs the Proteas make. What looked like a team total of 250 at best, turned to 322, enough for the impeccable bowling attack to give the side an innings win.
De Kock is only just back from a mental health break after a series of bio-bubbles took a toll on him. The wicketkeeper has had a tough few years in international cricket. With South Africa’s big three — Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, and Faf du Plessis — leaving the longer formats, de Kock was thrust into two things at once: being the team’s batting leader and being the team’s actual leader.
This was compounded by captaincy in the shorter formats and opening the batting too in those formats. South Africa overburdening their superstars with responsibilities is nothing new. It happened with Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, and AB de Villiers.
In de Kock’s case, it’s borderline insane. Only eight others in One Day cricket history have opened the batting, kept wickets, and been asked to captain the side at the same time. None of them did it for more than 28 matches (Alec Stewart). None of them were simultaneously the captain of the Test and T20I sides too, while also being the team’s leading batter. That’s a ridiculous amount of pressure on someone expected to bat carefree.
When de Kock raised his bat at St Lucia, it was his first hundred in Test cricket since his ton in India in 2019. He wasn’t the captain then and in the four Tests he captained the Test side in the interim, de Kock averaged 12. It’s probably no coincidence that his first Test hundred in two years came after he had been relieved of captaincy responsibilities across formats.
It still doesn’t answer his role in this Test side and the constant swing of roles from a Ponting to a Gilchrist. In the last three Test series — against England and Sri Lanka at home and Pakistan away — de Kock has moved from No.7 and No.6 to bat at No.5, before being moved back to No.6.
— Cricket South Africa (@OfficialCSA) June 11, 2021
South Africa’s desperation to play him higher up the order is understandable. Their top-order isn’t working and de Kock is easily their best batter in the post-de Villiers era. Since de Villiers played his last Test, only two South Africans have made over 1,000 Test runs — de Kock and Dean Elgar. No one who has batted more than five times has a better average than de Kock. No one has more hundreds. No one scores quicker. No one in the batting group puts pressure on the opposition anywhere close to what de Kock does.
The need to smoothen the transition process after the retirement of three giants has never been more deep-seated. For one, there is more context to Test cricket than ever before. The Proteas are ranked No.7 in the ICC Test team rankings. Even with a polished bowling group, South Africa have won just two out of the seven Test series since de Villiers last played Tests. This includes a 0-2 home series loss to Sri Lanka, a team they were expected to bully.
Clearly, batting has been the issue. Since the de Villiers era, South Africa’s top five have a combined Test average of 27.39, the worst after Ireland (very small sample size) and West Indies. They have scored six hundreds combined, the joint-lowest after Afghanistan (small sample size again). For perspective, Zimbabwe’s top five have as many Test hundreds in nine Tests. South Africa have played 19.
Amidst the ruins, de Kock — in one of the worst phases of his Test career no less — averages nearly 40. It couldn’t be more evident that South Africa sorely need de Kock to win Test matches. De Kock can’t be the Ponting and the Gilchrist together. Unfortunately, that’s too much to ask from anyone, let alone a 28-year old, who is just back after a mental health break and is also their best batsman in the other formats.
Pushing de Kock up the order, especially when he is the ‘keeper who is also doing a terrific job of batting with the tail — a hard task by itself — is unnecessary. Instead, the onus is on the management to ensure they give the new top-order guys time and not put pressure on de Kock to do their job, and secondly the likes of Dean Elgar, Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma (once he is back) to give de Kock the cushion he deserves.
There’s no instant solution to South Africa’s troubling batting structure. However, crippling their superstar of his freedom by shoving stuff on him is part of the problem, not the solution. Let him be and de Kock works like a magic.
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