Quinton de Kock’s eyes could play a leading role in a romantic comedy. In every interview, they appear to belong to a naughty schoolboy about to plead guilty to a misdemeanour.
But his eyes lie. De Kock can be clinical and cunning in his execution of strokes, and combative and feisty when the moment requires it.
Above the hum, deliberating the form and vigour of the Proteas batters, De Kock has emerged as a kingpin with the mentality and ability to carry his band of brothers over the line. He’s a team player who thrives in a cohesive environment surrounded by peers with a common purpose. He’s the loudest and most expressive in the dressing room, but shrinks and cringes when the limelight focuses on him alone.
Baseball was the Johannesburg-born left-hander’s first love, until his father convinced him to swop baseball mitts for cricket gloves. Thankfully, his natural inclination to hit through the line of the ball has carried through from the baseball diamond to the cricket oval. His enterprising approach to the game could be put down to the exuberance of youth, but De Kock, 26, has played more than 180 international matches for his country.
There’s a belligerence about De Kock that surfaces every now and again; sometimes it lands him in trouble. During the New Year’s Test against Pakistan at Newlands, South Africa needed just 41 runs for victory with 20 minutes of play remaining.
Captain Faf du Plessis had indicated he thought the openers could chase down that small target and spare everyone the trouble of coming back the next day. De Kock was not in the mood. He looked drained and desperate to get off the field and marched off before the umpires called stumps.
In that moment, South Africans saw De Kock’s stubborn side, bordering on defiance. It is that same attitude that serves him well in the heat of battle, where an enemy must be confronted and a challenge accepted. Being a product of the Highveld, it’s fair to say his default position is to fight back and never say no to a scrap.
Eyes of a Labrador, character of a Rottweiler
A year ago, as South Africa played host to Australia in Durban, De Kock, in response to David Warner’s chirps on the field, expressed his feelings to the Aussie opener in the awkward confines of the stairwell leading to the dressing room. An altercation ensued and the two had to be kept apart by their respective teammates.
Both were charged with bringing the game into disrepute. De Kock was slapped with a Level 1 breach while Warner was charged with a Level 2 breach. Again, it was a candid display of De Kock’s personality that fans had until then only seen on the pitch; the man with the lonely Labrador eyes was, in fact, a Rottweiler in the team setup.
With every crushing victory against Sri Lanka, South Africa’s World Cup aspirations slant enticingly in De Kock’s direction. His history-equalling performance in the one-day international (ODI) series against Sri Lanka, making five successive ODI half-centuries, sits comfortably with another record he once held when he was a tender, raw 21-year-old: most successive ODI centuries.
De Kock headed to the Indian Premier League and his new franchise, Mumbai Indians, will be hoping his form extends deep into the northern hemisphere summer.
Ending the dry spell
To think that less than a year ago, De Kock faced calls for his removal from the team after a poor away Test series against Sri Lanka. Fast-forward to now and he is named Man of the Series for leading the Proteas to a 5-0 ODI demolition of the Asian side in South Africa.
De Kock personified the haplessness of the Proteas on tour in the subcontinent in 2018, with his average sitting at 13.25 runs after four Test innings. Even then, he wasn’t the worst performing batsman on the team.
Before his latest rich vein of form in the ODIs started on 30 January against Pakistan, De Kock had last scored three figures on 15 October 2017, finally reaching 121 on 10 March against Sri Lanka in Durban.
In Tests, he broke another two-year run drought on 11 January this year when he scored that memorable 129 against Pakistan. He had made his previous ton way back on 2 January 2017.
De Kock vs Gilchrist
Comparisons with Australia’s legendary wicketkeeper/batsman Adam Gilchrist are as natural as they are predictable. Their ODI batting strike rates are almost identical, and both have opened the batting and featured lower down the order to thrilling effect. It’s no surprise that when Australia won the World Cup in 1999, 2003 and 2007, Gilchrist was the difference.
He scored 54 off 36 balls against Pakistan at Lord’s in England in 1999. Four years later, against India in Johannesburg, he made 57 from 48. He played one of the greatest World Cup innings ever when he scored 149 off 104 balls to bludgeon Sri Lanka in the 2007 final in Barbados.
Gilchrist was a game-changer for one-day cricket. He wasn’t unique as an attacking opening batter and world-class wicketkeeper, Sri Lanka’s Romesh Kaluwitharana had already blazed that trail in 1996. But Gilchrist has been the most effective and most profitable for his country.
It is this sort of influence the Proteas will be looking for De Kock to inject into the team’s makeup. As things stand, his one-day average of 45.96 eclipses Gilchrist’s 35.89 runs. But it’s silverware that counts more, and Gilchrist has an abundance of that.
“If you have three of the most senior men in the team firing‚ you will have a chance of having a good tournament. And if that doesn’t happen, you are going to have an average tournament,” Du Plessis told the media ahead of the series against Sri Lanka.
The Proteas are well aware of De Kock’s influence on the team and his ability to lead from the frontline.
Du Plessis has been generous in his praise for the young veteran, a sign that more is expected of him come 30 May in the much-anticipated opening game of the Cricket World Cup against hosts England.
“He puts the bowlers under real pressure and when he is on, you can take a team down as a batting unit,” Du Plessis said after De Kock’s Man of the Match performance in Durban against Sri Lanka.
Good balls, bad balls
“He hits good balls for four. Most batters will wait for a bowler to make a mistake and then hit him to the boundary. But when he is in that mode, he hits you off your good balls and then you bowl bad balls to him.
“Some bowlers fear what he will do to them, so he can almost transform the bowling attack for the rest of the batsmen. It’s a really dangerous power and we are very lucky to have him.”
It’s a point Du Plessis has tried to make with all his batters, that the team’s patience for substandard performances is wearing thin.
“Everyone needs to contribute every single game. You’re not guaranteed a performance, but you need to be guaranteed of putting in the style of play, the hard work and raising your own intensity,” Du Plessis said.
Not smart enough to lead
De Kock has had his fair share of critics, from those who feel he’s not smart enough to be a Proteas captain to those, like former captain Graeme Smith, who only five months ago stated the obvious – that De Kock’s career had stagnated.
There were raised eyebrows when he was appointed captain in the absence of the injured Du Plessis in Sri Lanka last year. While there were those who felt De Kock wasn’t captain material – especially with Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Aiden Markram in the team – Du Plessis and Proteas coach Ottis Gibson chose to give De Kock the opportunity to grow up and take on more responsibility.
“With guys like Quinton, it’s more about developing their personalities and character. Someone like Quinton will grow a lot just by getting extra responsibility. It doesn’t mean that he will be captain in the future, or he won’t, we just see an opportunity for him to grow as a player,” Du Plessis said at the time.
Those comments show the kind of investment the Proteas are making in a player like De Kock, to whom they will look to return the faith placed in him on the biggest stage in cricket in a few months’ time.