Quinton de Kock is close to his best in all formats of the game after his slump in form last year.
Quinton de Kock was disillusioned, demoralised and down in the dumps. South Africa’s wonder kid was going through a lean patch with the bat, and the timing could not have been worse.
Having returned from a serious ankle injury at the beginning of last year, De Kock had only managed a highest score of 26 in seven ODI matches after making his comeback, with six of those innings coming in the pool stages of last year’s World Cup.
Understandably then, De Kock’s place at the top of the order was under intense scrutiny, particularly ahead of the Proteas’ quarter-final clash against Sri Lanka. Yet, undeterred, the selectors backed the prolifically talented youngster to come good, and in response, he struck a quickfire unbeaten 78 as South Africa romped to a nine-wicket win over Sri Lanka.
That riposte though, is only part of the De Kock fightback story. His struggles in 2015 would continue as he scored just 14 in the Proteas’ disappointing semi-final defeat to New Zealand, before enduring a difficult post-World Cup tour to Bangladesh.
In two T20Is, three ODIs and a Test, De Kock could only tally 100 runs, and, as his wicket had done all too often during that time, the axe finally fell. De Kock was dropped for the second Test against Bangladesh and was subsequently sent to India with the SA A team.
By all accounts, the 23-year-old had reached a crossroads in his career, and the direction and decisions he took from there were always going to define this next part of the De Kock story.
The youngster, who has already made well over 50 ODI appearances and earned 29 T20 international caps, honestly admits to SACricket magazine that it was a time of personal turmoil.
‘Being dropped from all three formats was a setback mentally, although I understood that I hadn’t performed well enough in ODI cricket, and at stages of the World Cup I was really down on myself. Then when I was on tour with the A side, I also went through a period where I was questioning what I was doing and where I was going. It felt like my whole career was coming down around me, and I guess it was a bad mental state for any sportsman to be in.’
However, De Kock didn’t have much time to wallow over where it had all gone wrong. Having been thrust into the SA A side after a number of players had fallen ill in Chennai, De Kock made an immediate impact with a gritty century in a 50-over match against India A. Despite suffering dehydration in that game, he promptly backed that century up with a far more fluent 113 a few days later.
De Kock then moved down the order for the first unofficial Test against India A in Wayanad, and bludgeoned another 113 off 102 balls, which included three sixes. Away from the spotlight, De Kock was suddenly his old self again, playing with the flair and natural feel that had most memorably caught the eye when he struck three successive ODI centuries against India at the end of 2013.
However, De Kock concedes there were no drastic changes to his technique or preparations that brought about a much-needed batting transformation during his time with the SA A side.
‘Somehow, I just managed to adopt a bit more of a care-free approach, and began to play with some more freedom, and it worked,’ De Kock recalls. ‘I was able to get into a space where I started hitting the ball well again and my confidence returned. After that time with the A team, I was also able to spend some time at home with friends and family. That also helped me get back into a better space.’
Duly recalled to the Proteas side for the ODI series against India last October, De Kock once again demonstrated his ever-increasing affinity for subcontinent conditions as he struck two important centuries and emerged as the third-highest run-scorer in the series.
De Kock then turned his attention towards winning back his place in the Test team ahead of the highly-anticipated summer series against England. He sent out a reminder about his capabilities in the longer format of the game when he struck a second innings half-century in a SA A tour game against England, which he followed up with a hundred in a four-day match for the Titans.
In the end, it really came as no surprise when De Kock was drafted back into the Proteas squad after their first-Test defeat to England, with AB de Villiers battling behind the stumps and making no secret of the fact his Test-keeping days were behind him.
‘I was really pleased to play Test cricket again,’ De Kock enthusiastically recalls. ‘From when I was young, it was always a dream of mine to play 100 Tests for the Proteas. I really enjoy the longer format of the game, and for me to be part of that squad is something that gives me a lot of pleasure.’
Six months after being dropped following the first Test against Bangladesh, De Kock found himself back in the Proteas whites, but there would be yet another twist to the De Kock story.
Having gone for a walk with his dogs on the eve of the third Test, De Kock slipped and injured his leg in a ‘freak accident’. Overnight, his knee swelled up, and the next morning he was ruled out of action, with Dane Vilas called up at the 11th hour.
It was a bizarre incident, but De Kock recovered in time to reclaim his place for the fourth Test. Despite striding to the crease with South Africa’s first innings tottering at 273-5, De Kock maturely took control of proceedings on his way to a maiden Test century, which included 17 fours and two sixes.
De Kock’s uncharacteristically emotional celebration upon reaching the three-figure mark spoke volumes. It was clearly a milestone that resonated with the youngster.
‘I don’t normally react with all that much emotion, but it all came out that day,’ he admits. ‘I guess I was just overwhelmed by the moment and what it meant to get my first hundred in that format.’
De Kock finished unbeaten on 129 and then went on to score two sublime centuries in the ODI series against England, becoming the quickest and youngest batsman to score 10 ODI centuries (55 innings and 23 years, 54 days old).
And as he had done in that five-match series, he then emerged as South Africa’s leading run-scorer in the World T20 in India, accumulating 153 runs in four innings.
In typically forthright fashion though, De Kock says he felt he should have converted three starts in that tournament into bigger scores.
‘That opening batting position is a really key position in T20 cricket, and I felt like I could have played certain situations better, but hopefully I will have learned from that.’
To complement De Kock’s resurgence in batting form, his glovework behind the stumps has generally been beyond reproach across all formats of the game.
‘I feel like I’ve found my feet in the team again,’ he says. ‘It’s important for me to keep my mind and thoughts clear. I think I’m mentally stronger now, and while there is certainly a need to be responsible in certain situations, I’ve also found that it’s important to be able to continue playing with the freedom that suits my game.’
Such comments provide insights into the personal and professional progression De Kock has undergone over the past 12 months.
‘I feel that bad period I went through last year has made me a better cricketer and a better person,’ he muses. ‘When your career has a downfall like that, I don’t think anybody would be in the best mental state, and I admit I wasn’t the nicest person to be around at the time. But coming back from it has made me stronger, and if it does happen, again, at least I know how to come back from it.’
And as a new season dawns for the Proteas, De Kock could well be the fulcrum around which so much revolves if South Africa are to arrest their slide down the rankings.
‘I became very negative when I went through that tough patch, but I’m enjoying my cricket again,’ De Kock says in what should come as music to the ears of Proteas fans. ‘My competitive streak is back, I’m enjoying being out on the field and the company around me. I’m not just enjoying my cricket, but life as well, and I’ve realised how important that balance is.’
Indeed, after a number of twists and turns, it seems the De Kock story is once again going according to script.
Written by Craig Lewis, a senior writer at Highbury Safika Media.