Quinton de Kock is a man of few words and he had just one when he was appointed South Africa’s permanent white-ball captain and asked if he would consider giving up the wicketkeeping gloves to accommodate the extra responsibility:
It was one of the few times de Kock has been adamant, even aggressive, when answering questions. He usually mumbles and stumbles his way through in that charmingly naive way that people who don’t like to speak in public have when they are forced to. But on the issue of the triple-task of leading the team, opening the batting and keeping wicket, de Kock was unequivocal that he wanted to do it all.
It’s a job only three other players have done for more than 10 matches across all formats and one that, if it goes well, could see him involved in every ball of every match. Rather than express concerns about overload, de Kock said it was essential that he does it that way because he regarded glovework as “the one thing that helps me with my captaincy and my batting“. And the early evidence suggests he is not wrong.
In 16 matches in his new super-role, de Kock has a marginally higher-batting average than in the 194 in which he has not been a three-in-one. He has scored a century and seven fifties, has caught everything that has come his way and though he led South Africa to three series defeats, he also oversaw an ODI clean-sweep over Australia – no mean feat in their toughest summer since readmission.
But is it sustainable? Andy Flower, who did the same job 13 times between 1993 and 1996, tells ESPNcricinfo that it could be, if it’s cleverly done. “It’s hard work. It’s quite a load which doesn’t mean it’s not doable, but you have to be smart about the way you expend your energy,” Flower said. “One of the key strategies will be how he recovers, rests and re-energises.”
Player workload is a much-talked-about subject for all professional cricketers and rotation policies are commonplace in national squads. The trouble is that it’s difficult to rest someone who wears as many hats as de Kock, especially as South Africa are still working on their combinations and could do with the certainty of having three roles taken care of. “You don’t want anything to give,” Flower said. “A player of Quinton de Kock’s quality gives your incredible flexibility on selection. He is a genuine allrounder and allows you to balance your side easily.”
Some of the pressure can be taken off him through a strong core of senior players, something South Africa barely have but are trying to hang onto. That’s one of the reasons Faf du Plessis has travelled with the ODI squad to India. “For any captain, his lieutenants are important, not any more necessarily for a keeping captain.” Flower said. “But for any captain to have a core nucleus of influential players is important.”
South Africa are also in the process of building that so, for now, de Kock is the fulcrum around which everything turns. He is likely to continue captaining, keeping and opening the batting for the foreseeable future and Flower has some advice: while captaining and keeping wicket go hand-in-hand, captaining and batting may not.
“The physical positioning of being behind the stumps is a wonderful place to assess the game from; it’s the prime place,” Flower said. “From there, you can see if its swinging, reverse-swinging, read the pitch and the bounce. It’s about the skill of compartmentalising after that. It’s about being able to take off the captaincy hat and put on the batting helmet and shifting from leader to batsman. If he can keep his thoughts as simple as that, and be disciplined in making that switch, he will fine.”
And yet despite this, if any aspect of the triple role is likely to suffer, it will probably be de Kock’s glovework, as Flower himself experienced when his concentration on the specific role wavered. You don’t want to make any mistakes and I didn’t feel like I could dedicate enough time to it in training and on the field,” Flower said. “Because of the flow of the game, that really close focus on expecting every ball to come your way and taking every sharp chance, can be lost sometimes. Any mistake you make is highlighted and you feel like you are letting everyone down. Maybe it’s a little easier in a fifty-over game.”
Flower captained and kept wicket for 16 Tests (albeit he didn’t open), averaging a creditable 49.28 with three hundreds. However he gave up the gloves when Tatenda Taibu broke onto the scene and he was only too happy to do so. “It was so much easier to be lolling about on the outfield and I had so much more time and energy,” he remembered.
That’s not advice de Kock will want to hear but it’s something for South Africa’s management to keep in mind. Luckily, they have two other wicketkeeper-batsmen in the current squad who could step up if needed. Heinrich Klaasen, who was the leading run-scorer against Australia, is one option while Kyle Verreynne, who impressed in his debut series with scores of 48 and 50 in two of the three games and stunning outfield work, is another. Both of them are relatively new to the international scene and need time to find their feet and secure a spot before any of talk of them taking over from de Kock can be entertained.
Meanwhile de Kock has to keep trying to turn South Africa’s fortunes around, after their worst summer since readmission and as they build for major white-ball tournaments. There’s three in the next three years with back-to-back T20 World Cups and the 50-over World Cup in 2023 and the new management staff were appointed with that as their end-goal. South Africa’s obsession with winning a World Cup will only end when (if) they finally succeed, and until then, they will have to deal with every criticism, from team composition to mental fortitude. That will be de Kock’s biggest test of all.
“He is very physically talented and looks fit, and he is a beautiful batsman to watch,” Flower said. “But it will also be about how he deals with criticism about himself, and how he deals with that emotionally on behalf of the team.”