Australia vs South Africa 2016: Quinton de Kock - the X-factor for South Africa?
"I didn't find any difference. I am not one to overthink it. A ball is a ball. I just play the way I should be playing in that situation, it's no difference to me," Quinton de Kock had said after the warm-up match with the pink ball against Cricket Australia XI last week.
When players and cricket analysts around the globe were comparing the pink ball to all other balls in cricket and identifying it's flaws and positives, there was this South African wicketkeeper who appeared least bothered by its traits.
'A ball is a ball'
This has never been put in an easier manner. The statement has put to shame all the grumbling players who were unhappy with the pink ball. No one ever thought of it this way maybe. It is this carefree attitude that sets de Kock apart from the rest.
The baby-faced assassin, as he is known, has been the face of South Africa's new generation of batsmen. He came in as a breath of fresh air at 19 years of age after some brilliant performances at domestic level. Though the scorecard did not immediately stand out for him, the talent on display was for everyone to see. The performances followed.
Despite struggling to break into the Test squad, as De Villiers donned the keeping mitts, de Kock was unperturbed. He kept mounting the runs in limited overs cricket. The breakthrough eventually came against Australia in December 2014 but there was nothing special to show - a 7 in the first innings was followed by a decent 34.
In a successful tour to Sri Lanka, however, de Kock proved his worth with some handy contributions from down the order. His keeping had also improved a lot. Despite all of this, you couldn't tell yet that he had burst into the Test scene. The performances were still average.
The inevitable slump in the career of a cricketer rocked de Kock as well. Unfortunately for South Africa and him, it came at a crucial time - The 2015 World Cup in Australia-New Zealand. Though he made a speedy recovery just in time for the World Cup from an ankle ligament tear, he was rusty. His scores in the World Cup read - 7, 7, 12, 1, 0, 26, 78*, 14.
Apart from a good knock against the Lankans in the quarter-finals, the runs had deserted him. A rather silent series against the Kiwis and Bangladesh followed after which he was dropped from the Test leg of the tour of India.
It was a gutsy move because de Kock had always played well against India. But then he was totally out of touch and possibly needed the break. The cool de Kock said he ‘did not care’ and that it was bound to happen to all cricketers.
The return was pretty quick as he found himself back in the line-up for the ODIs. What followed and is still continuing is a period of sensational stroke making. He has had a bucket full of runs since. Across formats, de Kock has averaged 55.22 in 33 matches, from the ODI series against India. He has scored 6 hundreds and 6 half-centuries. His conversion rate is simply stunning - He has 11 hundreds and 8 fifties in ODIs. He became the youngest to score 10 hundreds in ODIs in the history of the game.
More than the runs, his free flowing stroke making was back. You could see the fearlessness and carefree touch to his game return. The cuts and drives through the off-side once again had his signature. He had mastered the flick over deep square leg off pace bowling. The timing and fluidity, two of the most remarkable features of his batting, had returned.
Form in Tests
Quinton was already a prodigy in ODIs. In Tests, he was yet to prove himself. After being dropped from the Test squad for the series against India in 2015, de Kock returned for the home series against England. A lone innings in Cape Town was followed by another injury which made him miss the second Test and once again raised questions about his place in the Test side.
But de Kock silenced all of that in Centurion in the 4th Test, scoring a run-a-ball unbeaten 129.
The series against the Kiwis in August saw him open in the absence of Dean Elgar. Not many keepers in the world had done that or wanted to do that. But de Kock was ready to step up for his team in a crisis. He showed his eagerness with an 82 in the first innings followed by a half century in 43 balls next time around.
Since his return to the Test side, de Kock has averaged 77 in 4 matches at a strike rate above 90. The strike rate shows that his carefree approach, reminiscent of Adam Gilchrist, is back.
Now de Kock travels with the Test team to a land where he struggled during the World Cup. He may not open like he did against the Kiwis in his last Test (he should not). But coming in at no.7 behind Bavuma and Duminy, de Kock has to bat with the tail and play his natural game, which is what he revels in. His 178 against the same opposition a month back and a 138* in a 400 run chase against England shows a determination that belies his age.
De Kock's task Down Under would be to play his natural game, and the Aussies know well that this lad can take the game away in a session. In the absence of ABD, it is all the more important.
The South African Test line-up is filled with proper Test batsmen starting from Elgar and Cook to Du Plessis and Bavuma. De Villiers is the real positive player in that middle order. In his absence, de Kock is the man to do it. He has form behind him and in conditions where the ball comes on to the bat, de Kock is as dangerous as ever.
He is not one to linger on his failures and so the poor World Cup in Australia will not bother him as he proved in the warm-up with another run a ball hundred under lights with the pink ball. He can handle spin and pace alike and in spite of being an out-and-out attacking batsman, is surprisingly not vulnerable. He may have his flaws, and an imperfect technique, but he has the game to overcome that pretty well.
Warning for the Aussies
His gameplay may be similar to that of Gilchrist or a Sehwag, but the will to score runs and disappointment when missing out eerily resembles that of India's Test captain, Virat Kohli. The hunger to succeed is written all over his face.
If Australia cannot get to him before South Africa have compiled 250-300 runs, they are in for some real trouble as this wonder kid can smash the attack to pieces when given a set platform. Even when the platform is not there, he has it in him to alter the course of the match. Be wary of him, Aussies.
(Video courtesy: All about world YouTube channel)