Quinton de Kock has to be backed at No 4 in the absence of AB de Villiers.
Would Adam Gilchrist have batted at No 7 for the majority of his nine-year Test career if Australia did not produce world-class top- and middle-order batsmen during that period?
Believe it or not, it’s an important question in the context of South Africa’s current batting problems and more specifically the role of Quinton de Kock.
The comparisons between De Kock and Gilchrist are justified in the sense that they are both left-handed batsmen and wicketkeepers. Test greats like Ricky Ponting, Michael Vaughan, and Graeme Pollock have all pointed out that De Kock has the same ability to dominate opposition bowlers and change the complexion of a Test match in a single session.
But should De Kock bat at No 7, just as Gilchrist did, for the duration of his five-day career?
Consider Gilchrist’s Test debut against Pakistan in 1999. Michael Slater, Greg Blewett, Justin Langer, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, and Ponting were the top six. In the first innings of that match, Slater (169) and Blewett (89) put on 269 for the first wicket while Mark Waugh also smashed a ton. Gilchrist contributed with 81, and yet a look at that lineup confirms that the Aussies weren’t short of class up the order.
How about Gilchrist’s last Test against India in 2008? Phil Jaques, Matthew Hayden, Ponting, Mike Hussey, Michael Clarke, and Andrew Symonds were the top six on that occasion. In the first innings, Jaques (60) and Hayden (103) got Australia off to a great start with a 159-run partnership. Ponting (140) and Clarke (118) also made big contributions.
The role of Gilchrist over the course of his career was to boost Australia’s totals. Gilchrist would come in at No 7, take the fight to the opposition, and transform a good total into a formidable one.
Many felt that De Kock could play a similar role when he first arrived on the Test scene in 2014. De Kock batted at No 6 in his first Test (against Australia) behind Graeme Smith, Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, and AB de Villiers.
At that point, the Proteas were the No 1 side in the world and their batting lineup was considered the best in the business. There was reason to believe that De Kock could play the ‘booster’ role down the order.
Three years on, and a lot has changed. Smith has retired from international cricket and De Villiers looks set to follow suit in the near future. Amla is out of touch and JP Duminy appears to have exhausted the selectors’ faith in his ability as a No 4 batsman.
The Proteas selectors are unlikely to tamper with the opening partnership of Elgar and Heino Kuhn. They gave Stephen Cook and Elgar an extended opportunity last season before deciding that a change was needed. One would expect them to offer Kuhn the same chance in this series against England.
De Kock has developed into a fine wicketkeeper. He pouched several crucial catches in the recent Test at Lord’s. It’s for this reason that the selectors may be reluctant to open with De Kock at this stage of his career. Asking a player, especially one as important as De Kock, to juggle the opening duties and then wear the wicketkeeping gloves is too much.
De Villiers was forced to assume the wicketkeeping duties following the premature retirement of Mark Boucher in 2012. Questions were always asked of the decision to burden South Africa’s best player with the responsibility of batting at No 4 and keeping wicket, even more so given De Villiers’ history of back injuries.
It would be foolish to burden De Kock with those responsibilities in the long term. In the short term, however, the selectors don’t appear to have any other choice.
The current South African side cannot be compared to the great Australia team of old. De Kock is comparable to Gilchrist, and yet his team doesn’t have the likes of Hayden, Langer, the Waughs, and Ponting up the order. Indeed, the Proteas no longer have Smith and De Villiers to lean on, and Amla is not as dependable as he once was.
It wouldn’t surprise to see Elgar and Kuhn opening in the second Test at Trent Bridge. It would surprise, and rankle, to see the remainder of the batting order unchanged.
Amla should bat at No 3, and De Kock should be introduced at No 4. De Kock is currently South Africa’s best batsman, and has the ability to put the England bowlers under pressure.
South Africa will need fighters of the quality of Elgar, Du Plessis, and Temba Bavuma to force a favourable result at Trent Bridge. The key to an improved collective batting performance, however, is De Kock. He must be backed at No 4 and given more responsibility with regards to building the Proteas’ innings.
Du Plessis should be pushed down to No 5 and Bavuma to No 6. The other big question is that of Duminy. Do the Proteas back him ahead of the less experienced Theunis de Bruyn at No 7?
Duminy’s form doesn’t warrant selection in the top order. And yet, given how hot it has been in England lately, and given how successful the England spinners were in the first match at Lord’s, an extra slow bowling option would help South Africa’s cause in the remaining three Tests.
In the long term, the Proteas may need to find another solution up the order. Alternatively, they will need to find another wicketkeeping option that frees up De Kock to settle at No 4.
Duminy’s days as a Test cricketer are surely numbered, but he may yet have a role to play, albeit a different one, in the coming weeks.