Cape Town – Quinton de Kock’s fifth century and maiden one on Indian soil, despite defeat at Visakhapatnam, will only reopen the complex debate about where best to station him in the currently rickety Proteas batting line-up in Tests.
While his role at the top of the order in one-day internationals is not in any dispute at all (he averages almost 53 batting at No 1 in that arena), the wicketkeeper/batsman’s position in the five-day side is a near-constant source of discussion.
Especially being in the painful throes of transition from the retirements of colossal figures like Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, the Proteas’ frontline batting in Tests is stubbornly vulnerable … raising suggestions that the naturally gifted, fast-scoring De Kock is wasted at No 7, his most familiar slot.
Very little looks settled about the SA upper middle-order, considering the ongoing struggles of players in critical berths like Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma.
Currently the designated No 3, De Bruyn is now averaging only 18.94 after 10 Tests, having registered 4 and 10 in the just completed 203-run reverse in the first encounter.
Bavuma, meanwhile, who has had three Tests on the trot as the No 4 (though nominally No 5 in the first innings at Visakhapatnam, due to presence of a night-watchman) is also not yet producing the weight of runs desired in that blue-chip position: he got 18 and a duck in the first Test and sports an overall career average of 32 after 37 caps.
All of this brings right back into focus whether De Kock should hike a few notches to one of the more frontline slots – such as the former “Jacques Kallis berth” of No 4, where someone like Ashwell Prince, the former SA batsman and nowadays leading franchise coach, is adamant the left-hander should operate.
He said on Twitter (@ashyp_5) during the first Test: “How many teams in the world deploy their best batter at No 6/7?”
That alone is a pretty strong argument, even if from a purely statistical point of view you could take issue with Prince: of really established players, captain Faf du Plessis eclipses him on the Test averages chart (42.74, versus 39.82) … although he is well less than a long-term investment now at 35, whereas De Kock potentially still has best years ahead of him at 26.
The vexing issue, though, is De Kock’s ongoing (and seldom less than highly impressive) occupancy of the gloveman duty, which is one good reason for him staying put around the Adam Gilchrist-legendary slot of No 7 in Tests, ideally as a dangerous finisher against tiring attacks.
It is a tough ask for someone to wear the gloves -- especially on slower, batting-friendly surfaces where the ‘keeper does a lot of standing up at the stumps to the spinners – and operate anywhere within in the top five as well, as there is so little room for necessary “feet up” in that dual capacity.
There is so much stamina-demanding, white-ball cricket these days, too, whether for country or (so often Twenty20-geared) franchise, that a marquee player in all formats like De Kock has to be deftly managed from a workload perspective to avoid mental and/or physical burnout.
But then there’s the only mounting, impressively numbers-driven case for arguing that De Kock should remain at seven in Tests -- where he is just so unerringly good.
In the first Test against the Indians, De Kock was intended to bat at No 6, given the way the Proteas shaped their XI, but ended up in altogether more familiar No 7 for the first knock anyway, after Dane Piedt’s short-lived experience as a night-watchman.
It somehow seemed fitting, then, that he duly rattled up an enterprising century from there – his first on the Subcontinent – whereas in the second dig, elevated back to six, he failed with an unceremonious two-ball duck!
Completion of the Test only further confirmed, in stats terms, what so many people are already aware of in De Kock’s case: his premier magic at the crease uncannily comes from No 7, that “bridging” berth between the main batting department and the tail.
Specifically as a seven, he has now played 31 of his 68 Test knocks in total, and rattled up 1368 runs (almost 55 percent of his career tally) at an impressive average of 50.66.
Push him even a tad higher up the order, however, and things start to unravel a bit: at No 6, he has scored only 581 runs from 21 innings at a considerably lower 29.05.
A couple of Tests at No 4 (and four turns at the crease) have seen him average just 22.75.
So shouldn’t you really just keep such an indisputably good thing going?
All that said, continued SA woes in the more blue-chip positions will simultaneously strengthen the cases of sharp-minded observers like Ashwell Prince for De Kock’s promotion.
This debate could roll and roll …
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