In that distant time before Covid-19, a genius batsman and a fast-bowling legend walked into a fishing hideaway deep in the jungles of South America. They stumbled upon a young Zulu man from the Drakensberg who was the expert guide.
“In Bolivia! What are the chances?” Quinton de Kock still exclaims.
The chance meeting with Trevor Sithole sparked an unlikely friendship, but one that persists to this day. It was a case of two young South Africans finding common ground in an uncommon place, and revelling in it.
The South African limited-overs captain, who was recently named Cricketer of the Year, Test Cricketer and Players’ Player of the Year at the Cricket South Africa awards, is a man of few words, particularly when he has to speak about what he does on the field. Instinct can be difficult to explain, and he often shrugs away introspection with a smile. But his face lights up when he talks about his passions off the cricket field, fishing and cooking in particular.
“Trevor’s story is amazing. He taught himself, watching these guys who used to come and fish in the river close to where he lives. He was just a natural, and now he is one of the leading guides in the world. It’s amazing,” De Kock beamed, clearly impressed about the path that his mate carved out for himself.
Sithole didn’t know who the pair of international sports stars were that came to the camp, and that suited the duo just fine. It was a retreat from the norm and a chance to be the students, rather than the geniuses they are at work.
“Ten days and they were inseparable. Quinny was like a kid in a candy store. It was beautiful,” said Dale Steyn, the bowling legend in tow who shares a fierce love for the outdoors and the adventurous with De Kock. When they are not picking off the world’s best batsmen, they quite enjoy trying to snaffle some of the world’s more elusive fish.
“It’s more about being out there, in places that you don’t often see. You actually don’t fish that much and spend a lot of time reflecting,” De Kock explained in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Reflection is not something many associate with De Kock, but the 27-year-old is one of the deeper thinkers in a team in transition. He also has a keen eye for the vulnerable in a dressing room, having spent much of his youth surrounded by men startled by the youngster in the corner.
A different kind of leader
Leadership comes in different guises. Much of what De Kock does goes unnoticed and thus the misguided theory develops that he is a one-dimensional sort. But there is much to De Kock, the nearly baseball star, the chef and fisherman, and indeed the considerate type.
A few years ago on tour, a new member of the team’s management had retired to his room after a successful cricket series. The fines meeting was done and the travelling party were free to do what they wanted for dinner. The newbie was thus startled by a knock at his door. There, with a bucket of beers and his wife, was De Kock.
“Howzit. I don’t know too much about you yet, so I thought we can get to know each other over a few drinks. This is Sasha,” the then youngster said confidently.
When he went to India and took charge of the Twenty20 team alongside interim coach Enoch Nkwe, who is now the assistant coach, De Kock was excited by the responsibility and the regeneration. Though the situation and personnel have changed since then, he holds Nkwe in the highest regard.
“A lot of people on the outside might see Enoch becoming an assistant coach as an issue, but the guys within the team respect him hugely for it. He could have easily gone and coached anywhere else, but he showed that he wants to be part of this team for the long term. I think that says a lot about his character.”
De Kock says the results on the field are obviously not good enough, but that patience now will have its rewards down the line. The transition of a team that is shedding experience by the series and the summer has not been straightforward, but there is already a bigger sense of accountability.
“The guys want to improve. That goes without saying. I think we started cutting a few corners before the new management came and the intensity now has been a shock to some players. These guys have been successful at the highest level, so they know what it takes. We have to trust in that, and I must say that I have enjoyed the greater intensity.”
That intensity has dropped completely, of course, with the world in lockdown. But certain things are slowly starting up again, like cricket, which is allowed to be played at level three of the government’s Covid-19 lockdown as it’s not a contact sport. For the Mumbai Indians star, going to cricket-mad India and seeing a billion in silence was an eerie feeling.
“You don’t get used to it, because you usually can’t get through the airports easily in India. This time it was very different, and they are obviously taking the same steps as many countries. You have to protect your health first, and there will be other chances to go back to India after this,” he said hopefully.
When there was no cricket, the wicketkeeper still put his hands to good use. “I’m the best cook in the team,” he states matter-of-factly. “So, I’ve been doing a fair bit of cooking at home.”
Detecting the apprehension, he offers examples of his work. From the kitchen, he can happily display his wares, adding that it is a skill he had to pick up early.
“I’ve lived by myself since I was 17. I got into cooking and I actually find it relaxing. I’ll make whatever. It’s been kak weather in Knysna for the last few days, so I have made a nice potjie, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” he adds proudly.
One of his favourite chefs is the gregarious Guy Fieri, the host of the popular Food Network series, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Fieri cooks with flair and instinct, so traits that are never too far away from De Kock when things are really cooking at the crease.
“Quinny really is a proper cook,” Steyn concurred.
But there are other skills he wants to pick up. On the 2019 visit to India, he was fascinated by Lance Klusener’s conversations with the black players in the team. Klusener speaks isiZulu almost better than he does English and De Kock noted how the players gravitated towards him.
After all, a message is all the more meaningful when it is delivered in one’s mother tongue. “That’s what I really want to do. I know it is harder to do as an adult, but it is something I want to work towards. Our former assistant coach Adrian Birrell was fluent in Xhosa, and then obviously ‘Zulu’ [Klusener] came in for that short time in India. I find it fascinating. Some people are fascinated by French or Spanish, but I’m South African and I want to learn one of our vernacular languages. It might take time, but I will learn,” he said with a Zulu-like stubbornness.
Another reason for wanting to get to grips with the most widely-spoken language in the country is his fishing buddy from the Drakensberg mountains.
“We’re supposed to visit each other and go fishing here in South Africa. I know his clan name is Jobe now, but I want to have conversations in Zulu. It’s just flipping hard,” he admitted.
Truly, Quinny the cook has plenty of tricks up his fiercely South African sleeve. And beyond this period of perspective, he hopes that the rivers will be bursting with fish ready to bite, and the pitches rested and ripe for riotous run-making.
A genius coiled up in isolation can dream about such things and, what is more, do so in whatever language he chooses.