Three of South Africa’s big guns will need to be in peak form to win the trophy for the first time.
Consistency. The word that the revered former Proteas captain, Graeme Smith, often uses to describe Quinton de Kock while on commentary duty at the Indian Premier League. ’The talent was always there, it’s now the consistency that has come into his game and makes him one of the best players around.’
There’s little to dispute, outside of India perhaps, that De Kock, the uncomplicated left-hand batsman and underrated wicketkeeper, is the best in the world at what he does. He is to South Africa what Adam Gilchrist was to Australia during their dominant era.
In the 1999 World Cup final, Australia rolled over Pakistan for 132, and then Gilchrist opened the batting to score 54 runs off 36 balls, helping to see his side home by eight wickets.
Gilchrist was a nexus of that Australia world champion side. Should South Africa go all the way this year, De Kock would certainly have played a similar part. There is no way that the 26-year-old can have an average tournament and still help guide the Proteas to the Holy Grail.
Gilchrist was 27 in 1999, De Kock is now 26. But De Kock already averages 45.56 from 106 ODIs; Gilchrist played 287 ODIs and averaged 35.89. It’s their strike rates (runs per 100 balls), however, that explain their brilliance, given the number of ODIs they played. De Kock’s is 95.81; Gilchrist’s was 96.94.
In other words, when those two are at the crease, they would be going at a run a ball and in the context of an ODI, that’s 300 up on the board, always defendable – in South Africa’s case, at this World Cup they have the best bowling attack with Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi, Imran Tahir and Andile Phehlukwayo all match-winners on any given day.
When Smith talks about De Kock being consistent, he’s not simply referring to his stint in the T20 Indian Premier League. In his last six ODIs for South Africa, the left-hander has hit 83, 81, 94, 121, 51 and 6. He’s already struck 14 hundreds at the top of the order, while behind the sticks he’s taken 149 catches and made eight stumpings.
Technically, some reckon he doesn’t move his feet enough, but any shortcomings in that regard are more than cancelled out by superb hand-eye co-ordination and fast hands. He’d make a good golfer, because his head – the heaviest part of the body – remains still at impact and his hands move quickly through the ball, which allows for perfect timing.
Above all, he is unflustered out there in the middle. Just ask Australia’s David Warner, whose career was derailed on the last tour of South Africa when he attempted to rattle De Kock with a volley of verbals.
Those who say that not much happens ‘upstairs’ – they said the same of Jacques Kallis – don’t affect the destructive baby-faced assassin. ‘Of course, I’m aware of it,’ De Kock told The Cricket Monthly in a delightful interview. ‘But it doesn’t bother me anymore. People can say what they like, but I’m living my best life. If you’re the kind of person who feels brave insulting a stranger from behind a keyboard, that says more about you than it does me.
‘Me and books don’t get along. I didn’t need school or university to get where I am today. We joke in the dressing room that I might not have graduated from high school, but I have a master’s degree in cricket.’ He didn’t finish schooling at KES, but has no regrets. ‘I was offered a [professional cricket] contract that would make any 17-year-old’s eyes water. My parents were on board and we decided to pull the plug on school and invest everything I had in cricket. I have no regrets. Things have turned out all right,’ he told the magazine.
The Proteas have selected a squad of 15, with the only controversy arising which of Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla or Reeza Hendricks to leave out. Eventually, it was the latter, but there was no fall-out drama. Which suggests they have their best-balanced squad to finally win a World Cup since, well, forever.
De Kock will need to have a good tournament, as will Rabada and captain Faf du Plessis.
Rabada will turn 24 a few days before the tournament starts, but he was part of the U19 squad – along with Markram and Phehlukwayo – who won the 2014 World Cup. That will go a long way to flat-batting any questions that may come his way about ‘choking’ on the big stage.
In his ODI career so far, he has played 66 matches and taken 106 wickets, including that incredible 6-16 on debut in Bangladesh in 2015. He averages 26.43 runs per wicket taken, and has an economy rate of just under five runs per over, which is good when you consider that 300 runs in an innings is about par.
Deceptively quick and with an intelligent cricketing brain, Rabada is a pure athlete, good in the field and able to add valuable runs down the order, which is unsurprising, given that at school he never took five wickets in an innings and was rated a better batsman than a bowler. But, he’s also a man who understands that often you get out of life what you put in.
When breaking down his bowling action, he says he has modelled himself on the following: ‘The outswinger has to be Dale Steyn’s, the inswinger Imran Khan [Pakistan], the bouncer Wahab Riaz [Pakistan] and the yorker Waqar Younis [Pakistan].’
When you put all those elements together, you get Kagiso Rabada, and that’s a fearsome thought for any batsman in the world. That outswinger will work well in the first part of the tournament in England, and the yorker will probably come to the fore later on in the competition when the pitches become a little flatter and drier.
Then the third part of the winning formula arises with the captain. Du Plessis is nearing the end of his international career, and he’ll celebrate his 35th birthday during the World Cup. An astute tactician and accomplished top-order batsman, where he averages 46.54 after 134 ODIs, his energy and leadership both on and off the field will play a huge part at the competition.
The Proteas head to England ranked as fourth favourites (8-1) to win the World Cup, which makes a change to previous campaigns when they were consistently rated among the hot favourites. This previously added to the pressure, and Du Plessis prefers to fly in under the radar. ‘Obviously, England at home are one of the favourites and India and Australia have proven that they are good tournament teams,’ Du Plessis said.
‘I think it comes down to form as a team and as individuals. If you have three or four of your batting lineup hitting purple patches, it changes the whole tournament. Nobody would have said Pakistan would have been close to favourites going into the Champions Trophy [in 2016], but they managed to bowl really well as a unit and kept bowling sides out and surprised a lot of teams. It’s nice to go as a team that are not spoken of a lot. I like the fact that we are going with less pressure. As a team we are going there as prepared as we can be in that aspect.’
The captain is looking for big performances from his fast bowlers, in particular, Rabada, Steyn and Ngidi.
‘We are trying to think ahead in case someone gets injured. The three of them are all bowlers who can take wickets. We feel that with the balance of the side and going with our strongest XI, having that X factor bowler (as a reserve) in our bowling attack is key,’ he said earlier this year. Nortje has therefore been selected as that ‘X factor’.
Perhaps a snapshot of South Africa’s prospects for the World Cup came in the ODI against Sri Lanka at the Wanderers earlier this year. Tahir took 3-26 and Ngidi claimed 3-60, while Nortje made a satisfactory debut as the visitors were shot out for 231 in 47 overs. In the reply, Hendricks fell cheaply (1) and Du Plessis joined De Kock in the middle.
They put on 136 in 21.2 overs before De Kock departed for 81 off 72 balls, and the captain smoothly moved to his 11th career ODI hundred, an unbeaten 112 off 114 balls. Rassie van der Dussen was there with him at the end as they reached the target of 232 with 67 balls to spare. At their existing run-a-ball rate this equated to some 67 runs, which would have taken them to 299. Right on par, but when you’ve got the bowlers to back that up, it’s worth 350 to other teams.
So, there you have it: De Kock, Rabada and Du Plessis. Should all three hit their straps in England and Wales, the World Cup might well be coming home.