Cape Town - If ever you wanted confirmation of cricket’s propensity for playing near-sadistic tricks on its participants at times, Quinton de Kock's second innings for the Proteas in the New Year Test against England at Newlands probably serves as a prime example.
It will be remembered as a knock in which an admirable new feather was just busy embedding itself in his cap (well, helmet) when it fluttered infuriatingly away again in a moment of what is commonly branded a “brain fart”.
The dashing wicketkeeper/batsman, for natural talent almost undeniably one of the foremost figures on the planet in both departments, came closer than many would have imagined to providing the necessary stonewalling defiance - massively against his primary instincts - to help save the second encounter for South Africa.
Instead the Proteas, collectively not lacking in resolve, came within an agonising mere half-hour or so (they were bowled out at 17:07 on day five) of eking out a draw and advancing to Port Elizabeth for next week’s third tussle still protecting a 1-0 lead in the four-match series.
It is more genuinely up for grabs again at 1-1, and England possibly believing with more conviction now that the tide is turning in their favour.
Senior batsmen Faf du Plessis, the captain, and De Kock falling in the relatively tame manner they did - both caught, playing attacking shots, front of the wicket - after meaningful enough periods of “knuckle down” undoubtedly played a strong part in South Africa’s demise on a strip that wasn’t deteriorating to nearly the extent anticipated for the final day.
Perhaps some 95 percent of the time, when presented with the fatal, virtual half-tracker he received from part-time England leg-spinner Joe Denly, De Kock would have despatched it more safely through a gap or along the turf ... or even high over the top for a consummate leg-side six, something he has a renowned comfort for doing when deliveries warrant that treatment.
Instead, eyes presumably lighting up at the apparent gift, the left-hander played a halfway-house sort of stroke, a meaty enough pull but at an inconveniently flat trajectory right down the throat (or rather a bit above it) of a gleeful Zak Crawley at midwicket.
Yet for virtually the entire prior duration of his innings of exactly 50, De Kock had extremely laudably and assuredly curbed his penchant for the cavalier, instead adapting grittily to circumstance like the now roughly mid-career international stalwart he is.
Commentators were quick to point out that the 27-year-old reached the half-century mark, in fact, at the slowest tempo yet of his Test career - on the 24thoccasion that he has reached fifty or beyond, including five tons.
He ended up returning to the pavilion (mortified, a look he does quite commonly, even when perhaps a bit less than justified) after facing 107 deliveries at a strike rate of 46.72.
That is notably sedate for him - De Kock’s career strike rate is an altogether brisker 72.21 in a career showing 2 753 runs at an average of 38.77 - and demonstrates just how close he came to what would have been a watershed innings, one revealing an altogether different, pleasing prong to his Test makeup.
Instead he was harshly left to contemplate that old “what might have been” for him in a classic backs-to-the-wall situation for the SA cause.
There is plentiful time yet for De Kock, of course, to get that monkey off his back and head coach Mark Boucher - handily, himself a ‘keeper/batsman of major world renown - might do well to lift the player’s spirits more immediately, ahead of the St George’s Park Test, by reminding him of just how adhesive and unflustered he had looked for the lion’s share of Tuesday’s innings.
The series as a whole is going swimmingly for the Gautenger so far, with 199 personal runs at a touch under 50 in average, putting him second across both sides at the halfway point for most runs notched – just one behind England’s relative newcomer Dom Sibley (200, also from four innings).
De Kock was also one of few Proteas to present something close to full potential in the last, infamously wretched Test match they played in the Friendly City - the 2018/19 series-deciding eight-wicket reverse to rank underdogs Sri Lanka, when he scored 86 in South Africa’s already pallid first innings of 222 all out.
Isn’t all that reason enough to bin that hangdog look for a while, Quinny?
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