Quinton de Kock: Bordering on genius

As a young South Africa team goes through the grind of transition, a cricketer of his quality and stature can act as a catalyst to reviving its fortunes.

Quinton de Kock raises his bat after scoring a century on the third day of the first Test match between India and South Africa in Visakhapatnam. “I try and keep things very simple; I’ve lived my life the same way so I treat my cricket the same way.” says de Kock.   -  PTI

South Africa wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock may have struggled to convert his lofty batting standards into runs in the recently concluded three-match Test series against India, but his aggressive style and handy glovework have made him stake his claim as one of Proteas’ emerging greats.

It is his ability to stay cool under pressure that has earned him praise from interim team director Enoch Nkwe, who has even touted the 26-year-old as a future captain ahead of next year’s World T20 in Australia. That ability was on display against India, that too in front of a boisterous Visakhapatnam crowd.

The left-hander rode on his skills for a 111, displaying exquisite strokeplay at the ACA-VDCA Stadium. He along with Dean Elgar put on an exhibition of counterattacking cricket. In hindsight, it was the lone bright spot on an otherwise disappointing tour for South Africa.

“I try and keep things very simple; I’ve lived my life the same way so I treat my cricket the same way,” de Kock tells Sportstar.

“I’ve been caught up before where I overthink and things don’t go too well for me, so I try and stay away from that. If I lead the team, I’ll try to simplify things and make sure everyone understands what needs to be done... I will not make the game rocket science for anyone, let alone myself.

“I don’t speak a lot about cricket off the field... if people want to talk about cricket then I’ll engage in a conversation but if it’s just me with friends and family, then we talk about other common interests,” he adds.

Between December 2013 and August 2014, de Kock racked up three successive ODI centuries against India at home, building a healthy reputation ahead of the 2015 World Cup. But an ankle injury on the morning of the first Test against the West Indies threatened to derail his hopes of featuring in the big-ticket event.

He recovered in time but suffered a loss of form through the tournament, evident in his modest return of 145 runs from eight innings. The lean spell caught up with him in Tests as well, where he had a mediocre 2017 with the bat before the rub of green returned.

“Quinton is bordering on genius as a player. This might be a strong statement, but his ability to manipulate the ball to areas all around the ground, with simplicity and timing, is quite remarkable,” says Paddy Upton, who worked closely with de Kock during the duo’s time at Delhi Daredevils in the Indian Premier League.

“He doesn’t need to walk around the crease, go down on one knee, switch-hit or play the ramp to access the same areas these shots require to do. As a person, he also can keep things simple and uncomplicated,” Upton adds.

Growing up, de Kock played action cricket [an indoor team game that lasts for approximately 70 minutes] before transitioning to club and school cricket. “So I played cricket wherever I could play,” he says. “I used to enjoy action cricket, so I played that a lot. As I started coming through the ranks, the kind of cricket I played became more structured — there was provincial cricket, then franchise-based leagues and eventually higher-level domestic competitions,” he adds.

Virat Kohli had recently said that India should play its home Tests at only five venues to keep Test cricket “alive and kicking.” At a time when the five-day format is threatened not just by the rising popularity of T20s, but also dwindling support from the fans, de Kock feels Test cricket is going through a “bit of a transformation.”

“In a couple of countries, it (Test cricket) is still a massive thing, if you go to watch the Ashes or follow a series in South Africa, there’s always a huge crowd and some good coverage, so there’s still space... T20 is a new decade type of game. The sport itself is changing whether it is T20s, ODIs or Tests. Everything is evolving all the time, that’s just the way it is... as long as the players and those managing the sport are able to understand and manage that we should be in good hands,” de Kock says.

He credits former international and long-time coach Jimmy Cook for his sound batting technique. “He coached me at the junior level, taught me the nuances of batting technique. Before that, I used to slog but Jimmy trained me how to play proper cricketing shots,” he recollects.

“There was a guy named Charlie... I keep forgetting his second name (laughs). He helped me with the bowling machine.. gave me throwdowns at least three-four times a week, sometimes even five times a week... Then there was Ryan Cook at school, who helped me understand the game better. They were the ones who helped me rise when I was still a youngster.

“There are so many others who gave me opportunities and sacrificed so much for me. Going forward, different coaches will influence you differently and you remember them for what you have learnt from them,” he adds.

Cricket — and batting in particular — is exceptionally complicated according to Upton. It relies on split-second timing where eyes, nerves, muscles, limbs and balance need to work in perfect harmony with the mind, to navigate a ball travelling at 150km/h.

De Kock with his teammates during a practice session. It is his ability to stay cool under pressure that has earned him praise from interim team director Enoch Nkwe, who has even touted the 26-year-old as a future captain ahead of next year’s World T20 in Australia.   -  K. R. Deepak

“The best in the world are able to find simplicity on the other side of the immense complexity that batting is. Quinton is an artist in this regard. He has the time where there is hardly any, ease where things are difficult, and is able to keep the complex simple,” Upton says.

Upton, who had taken over from Gary Kirsten as the head coach of Delhi, remembers de Kock’s first practice session with the team. Rahul Dravid, the assistant coach of Delhi at the time, called Upton over to the net where de Kock was batting and said something ‘profound that still rings in my ears.’

“He (Dravid) said, ‘Watch this guy. Do you realise that you and I are watching a genius?’ Rahul, who knows a fair bit about batting, went on to suggest that it was something that not many South Africans had yet realised,” Upton reveals.

Soon after, in a match against Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kohli 79 (48) and AB de Villiers 55 (33) helped smash 191 off the Delhi bowlers. “They were spectacular to watch as each scored at a strike rate of over 160,” Upton says. De Kock replied with a spectacular inning of 108 (51), scoring at a way higher strike rate of 211, to take Delhi over the line. “He did it with so much more ease and finesse, yet was far more devastating to opposition bowlers,” Upton says.

South Africa’s journey in the World Test Championship is off to a bumpy start, with a 3-0 whitewash against India. And as a young team goes through the grind of a transition period, a cricketer of de Kock’s quality and stature can not only help lift the spirits, but also act as a catalyst to reviving the side’s sagging fortunes.