South Africa will go into the T20 World Cup with a squad bereft of some senior names and with their head coach under intense scrutiny, but in Quinton de Kock they have a hero to fall back on, writes Rohit Sankar.
Last month, in a game in The Hundred in Southampton, Quinton de Kock was faced with a challenge he should expect from the get go in UAE when the T20 World Cup arrives.
Chasing 129 to win, the Southern Brave opener was up against mystery spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman for the third set of five balls. Given the low target, de Kock had the luxury of playing him out, but the South African showed his intent immediately, reverse sweeping Mujeeb off back-to-back balls to fetch boundaries. De Kock finished on an unbeaten 45-ball 72 to take Southern Brave home. More importantly, he took down a mystery spinner (27 runs off 12 balls) and milked one of the leading leg-spinners in world cricket (Adil Rashid), not facing a single dot ball against either of them.
It felt like an emphatic effort from de Kock, particularly because he isn’t one to bat deep into the innings or take down spin bowling match-ups. In his entire T20I career, de Kock has faced less than 13 per cent of his deliveries outside the first 10 overs. 66 per cent of his T20I runs have come in the powerplay alone where he strikes at a rate of 145.1, his best across any phase. It’s pretty evident what kind of T20 player he is: a powerplay gun who sets up the game for the middle overs.
That narrative might have to slowly shift, more towards what happened at Southampton one month ago, if South Africa are to have a decent T20 World Cup campaign. The Proteas named their T20 World Cup squad on Thursday with Faf du Plessis missing, a decision CSA Director Graeme Smith put down to a struggle for balance with the free-agent player.
Whatever the reason, in the last few months, South Africa have gone from possibly having a middle-order with AB de Villiers (now finally retired for good) and du Plessis to one without two of their biggest batting superstars in the last decade.
The developments have put a lot of onus on de Kock to step up and fill multiple roles in the T20I side. He isn’t one to shy away from it as he has shown in the past by donning the hat of captain, opener and wicketkeeper simultaneously. However, that experiment didn’t last long, and resulted in him needing a mental health break in March. Since returning to the setup without the added pressure of being captain, de Kock has been back to prime form across formats. In T20Is, he has three fifties in the eight innings since his break, recording scores of 25 or more on each of the eight occasions.
South Africa’s middle-order has big names, but de Kock is easily their batting superstar and in conditions that require the team to wade through a higher proportion of spin overs than they would ideally want to face, de Kock’s role at the top is more than just being the basher. He will need to be the AB de Villiers of the 2015 World Cup if South Africa are even to dream of a place in the semi-finals at the big-ticket event.
De Kock’s numbers show he is starting to gain a sense of what he needs to do for the team and for himself as a T20 player. In 2021, de Kock has notably batted deeper into a T20 innings while maintaining a strike-rate of 145 in the powerplay.
South Africa’s focus is off — and not for the first time — ahead of the T20 World Cup with head coach Mark Boucher and CSA Director Graeme Smith in hot soup over allegations of acts of racism during his playing days. On top of this, there have been questions asked around the T20 World Cup squad selection, one that seemed to be heavily catering to Proteas’ aggressive transformation needs. South Africa are required to play six players of colour, two of whom are Black Africans over a period of one year across formats. This number is set to increase further in the next few seasons, although that has been put on hold for now. The non-inclusion of veterans Imran Tahir, who revealed he has had no contact from Boucher and Smith in the past few months, Faf du Plessis and Chris Morris have not been well received either.
With the off-field stuff taking attention, South Africa’s T20 World Cup plans have been hit hard. They have little to no time to work around those problems before the mega event. Luckily, they have a hero who can salvage their on-field image at least. Contrary to all the drama around him, de Kock has silently become South Africa’s single most important player in this messy setup. South Africa do not deserve him, but they need him to own this World Cup if they are to put up a fight.