• A licence to thrill

    There is a freedom and freshness about South Africa’s newest left-handed batting talent. This baby-faced assassin looks to be the real deal, writes Tom Eaton.

    ’Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, mainly because they were all glued to the cricket. And what Scrooge-like stuff it was too. In Durban and in Sydney the cottonwool snow and fibreglass reindeer were out in force but at Kingsmead and the SCG the spirit of giving was as dead as a doornail. South Africans witnessed the Ghost of Cricket Past courtesy of a Kepler Wessels half-century and two masterclasses in strangulation courtesy of Kapil Dev (3-23 off 10) and Allan Donald (1-19 off 9). But few at Kingsmead would have known that earlier that day, on the other side of the planet, Australians had witnessed the most miserly performance in the history of the game as Phil Simmons took 4 for 3 in 10 overs against Pakistan and made Kapil and Donald look like profligate pie-chuckers of the lowest order.

    Yes, on 17 December 1992, it seemed that One-Day International cricket was still firmly rooted in the 1980s with their rampant seamers and the sort of run rates that would make Geoff Boycott blush. The likes of Dean Jones and Desmond Haynes could shred the odd attack now and then but received knowledge was still pretty clear that no human being could survive speeds of over six runs an over. And it was into that world, on that day, that Quinton de Kock was born.

    There’s an old Chinese proverb: ‘May you quote an old Chinese proverb about interesting times whenever you want to sound erudite.’ But the fact is that Baby de Kock was born in interesting times, at least in cricketing terms. Having shown the first signs of middle-aged stodginess, ODIs were about to be reinvented and reinvigorated. De Kock had only just turned three, and perhaps just started slog-sweeping his soft toys over the deep midwicket couch, when Sri Lanka won the World Cup with their revolutionary tactic of ultra-aggressive batting against the new ball. He hadn’t started school yet when Donald and Lance Klusener … well, you know the rest.

    In other words, De Kock’s cricketing brain was formed in a world in which nothing was impossible. He probably knows the history and had his childhood heroes but he does not have any real concept of a universe in which a strike rate of 70 is considered a crowd-puller.
    It no doubt seems normal to him that he and his opening partner, Hashim Amla, score faster than Klusener. After all, Klusener was, like, from the olden days. To him, the excitement of South African fans watching Hansie Cronje or Dave Callaghan score at almost a run a ball must feel like the excitement of prehistoric fish watching their peers slowly crawl up on to dry land.

    De Kock’s extreme youth and a sense of him being an entirely new species make me feel terribly old: I clearly remember the rollercoaster thrill of watching the Proteas bat at 4.5 runs an over in two consecutive ODIs. But it also makes him exceptionally pleasing to watch. Standing at the crease like a schoolboy, looking slightly like a young Paul McCartney in his dad’s crash helmet en route to a Beatles practice in a basement, he seems a pleasing anomaly in the professional, high-stakes, high-pressure era: a dopy dominator, a natural, an aw-shucks kid who doesn’t quite know what he does but does it superbly anyway.

    By his own admission, he’s not a big fan of i-dotting and t-crossing. Homework, like watching videos of the opposition, isn’t really his bag. He prefers to show up and hit the ball. All of which makes it intriguing that he should have found himself in a four-way tie with Viv Richards, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott for the title of the fastest man to reach 1 000 runs in ODIs. Not that I doubt his ability or his drive: he’s got more flair than Trott, and the same audacity as Pietersen, albeit with less overt machismo. But those other three were all driven by an almost luminous passion to prove themselves. For Richards, batting was gladiatorial and his enemy was a white, Anglocentric establishment that didn’t believe black men could whip it at its own game. Pietersen and Trott wanted to make a huge pile of runs to rub in the faces of their English and South African critics. Alongside those three passionate, almost zealous, men on a mission, De Kock seems somewhat out of place. And yet there he is. The shared record speaks for itself.

    It speaks, but what does it say? Does it tell us that De Kock is a talent for the ages? Perhaps not. One purple season against moderate attacks doesn’t make him Richards Redux. But there is something about De Kock that hints at more, that makes one want to believe he might turn into something extraordinary. And for me it’s not about how many runs he makes or against who he makes them. It’s about how he makes them. Yes, he can look horrible. That skied slog-sweep in Harare, an attempt to go over cow corner, ended up as pure cow dung.
    But when he’s on song against pace bowlers there is an arc to his bat – a great scything curve that is languid and vicious – that looks familiar. It’s the same scything, slightly angled bat we’ve seen in black-and-white footage of Graeme Pollock and Garry Sobers; that we saw live from Brian Lara and Adam Gilchrist. And it’s enough to make me wonder if De Kock might, in fact, be that most rare and wondrous of batting phenomena: a true left-handed expressionist.

    I’ve always thought there are four kinds of batsmen: right-handers, left-handers, right-handed expressionists, and left-handed expressionists. The first two comprise the great majority of batsmen, and play orthodox cricket for orthodox reasons. Some of them have high hands and elbows, some lead with the bottom hand and hit across the line. Some have quick feet, some are rooted in the crease. Some are elegant, others awkward. These are the batsmen who make the bulk of the runs that keep the game ticking along. Right-handed expressionists are a much rarer beast. Some are technically sound, others are all hands and eyes, but all of them exude a passion, a desire to perform, to be adored. Their ambitions are as much about aesthetics as they are about scoring runs. But they cannot escape the fundamental angles of the game – that corridor created by right-arm bowlers delivering over the wicket. They might want to plaster the ball in all directions but they are often forced by basic anatomy to obey the angles given to them; to play straight, to stay side-on.

    But no such limitations are imposed on the rarest of them all, the left-handed expressionist. The ball angling across him presents some danger, but with greater risk comes much greater reward: the off-side is peeled upon like a kingdom ripe for conquest. Perhaps because he knows the nick will ultimately come, he is free to express himself in a way that no other batsman is. And along with the freedom that comes with wider angles and a ball freeing his arms rather than cramping them, is the knowledge that he looks fantastic doing what he does. This is no craftsman doing a job. This is a showman creating a spectacle. And the more the crowd loves him, the more potent he feels and the more scything that great sweep becomes. Sobers, Pollock, Lara,  Gilchrist: names that resonate not only with weight of runs but with eye-watering elegance and savagery.

    Perhaps this is all projection. Lara was the reason I fell in love with cricket, and his retirement was the beginning of a period of cooling affections in me. But I do think left-handers are just a little bit different, not just physically but also psychologically. As a left-hander I know how we are treated by a right-handed world. There is very little unkindness or prejudice any more but from the first time you pick up a pair of scissors and cut a skew line you are made to feel subtly different; and that difference starts to feel like freedom. You feel you don’t have to cut straight. You don’t have to write neatly. It’s OK if they can’t find a baseball mitt for you: you’ll just improvise. From an early age the left-hander feels subtly, comfortably different; and perhaps for batsmen that translates into a sense of being able to play more on their terms, play the game they want to play rather than the MCC-endorsed right-handed game everyone else is playing; to express themselves.

    South Africa produced Pollock but he was an anomaly. For the rest I would suggest that our cricketing culture chokes the passion that is the life energy of the left-handed expressionist. The cricket nurseries that produce our best batsmen, and the corporate world that runs their adult careers, are conservative, self-policing patriarchies, drawn to orthodoxy over individual flair. We favour carthorses over racehorses. Gary Kirsten and Graeme Smith were lauded as ‘bankers’, while the dashing Ashwell Prince was made to believe he’d only have a Test career if he calmed down and exchanged style for substance. In his case it was true, but one can’t help feeling that JP Duminy is having the last flickers of priceless expressionism squeezed out of him by the local set-up, exiled down at No 7 with a licence to do nothing but endlessly play for his place in the team.

    So why do I have hope that De Kock might be given a chance to develop into something a little bit special? Surely, at some point, the powers that be will start making him watch videos and doing his homework? It’s possible. But I also think that the passion-killing instinct in our cricket culture might have a blind spot when it comes to all-rounders (which include wicketkeeper-batsmen). I think we are ideologically so locked into prescribed roles that we can only get our head around one talent at a time. Duminy is not a true all-rounder – he is a ‘proper’ batsman who bowls – and so he is being sat on. But De Kock, like Klusener before him, has two distinct jobs as a cricketer, and that means the establishment considers him to be something slightly other, slightly alien. For now, he is free to roam beyond the fence. Amla recently joked that De Kock doesn’t listen to any advice from him when they are batting together. It might have been said in jest but it sounds like truth and suggests that De Kock is playing free from the constraints of a top-down patriarchal structure. Long may it last.

    That scything drive, those startlingly quick pulls, make me greedy. They encourage me to ignore what I see – a very young wicketkeeper-batsman playing with the freedom of youth, mixing astonishing successes with some very amateurish failures – and seduce me into seeing what I want to see: a maestro starting to come into his talent. They make me want to see De Kock coming in at five in Tests in the near future. I want to see, even for just a part of a session, what it was like to watch Sobers or Pollock in the flesh. He’s got the eyes, the hands and the attitude. Unfortunately for me, though, he might not have the technique yet: he’s been dismissed by spin in all seven of his Test innings to date, suggesting there are wrinkles that need to be ironed out. Bloody reality …

    So for now I’ll be content to watch him in ODIs, a bright young thing who believes the ball is there to be hit, and whose ferocity and grace make me remember the beautiful greats, and remember just how magnificent cricket can be.

    This feature appears in the October issue of Business Day Sport Monthly. 

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