It is not often in Test cricket that you see a No.7 batsman effortlessly take the fight to the opposition.
You know you are watching a once-in-a-generation cricketer considering that South African wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock has been doing it with astonishing regularity this year.
The 23-year-old hit two hundreds and four fifties in seven Tests in 2016, and following his assaults Down Under, has drawn comparison with Australian great Adam Gilchrist, who revolutionized the role of the wicketkeeper-batsman.
The role underwent a paradigm shift with Gilchrist —who scored 17 Test hundreds, 26 fifties and often turned matches with his prodigious hitting at No.7, before retiring in 2008.
For, globally thereafter, wicketkeepers were required to be good enough to walk into the side on the strength of their batsmanship alone.
While the likes of Sri Lankan great Kumar Sangakkara and Kiwi Brendon McCullum were primarily top-order batsmen who turned out to be excellent wicketkeepers, the shift saw the emergence of the likes of India’s M.S. Dhoni, de Kock and Jonny Bairstow manning the gateway to the tail.
The new breed of wicketkeeper-batsmen added depth to their side’s batting, but some of them turned out to become game changers; adapting to situations and equally adept against both spin and pace—with the second new ball, more often than not, around the corner.
De Kock has raised the bar by a few notches in contemporary cricket, with his ability to scrap and stay with the tail or shift gears to tighten the screws after the top-order has fired.
Not to forget his physically demanding primary role—an acrobatically accomplished glove-man with already 50 dismissals in 13 Tests, 96 in 69 ODIs and another 36 in 29 Twenty20 Internationals. Interestingly, de Kock got his international break in a T20I in December 2012 after A.B. de Villiers requested for his workload to be reduced.
The Johannesburg-born opens the batting in the shorter formats like Gilchrist did, and with tremendous success, having scored 11 hundreds and eight fifties in 69 One Day Internationals, racking up 2,850 runs at a scoring rate of 94.55.
De Kock plundered three successive ODI hundreds against India at home in 2013, and two more in a five-ODI series in India last year.
His impact on the game’s longest format has been nothing short of remarkable this year, as the boyish-looking de Kock, who, while growing up, toyed with the idea of a baseball career in the US, played a key role in South Africa’s third successive Test series victory in Australia in November.
In the opening Test at Perth, de Kock hit a 101-ball 84 in the first innings to help lift the side from 81-5 to 242, and a 100-ball 64 as the visitors took a 1-0 lead in the three-match series.
“He’s probably the closest wicketkeeper-batsman to Adam Gilchrist that we’ve seen since he retired,” former Australian batsman Ricky Ponting told BT Sport television after the Test.
“Just the way he’s able to dictate to the bowlers, the way he wants to play… but it’s the rate that he scores that’s the most impressive. He slots into that No.7 spot perfectly for the South African team. It’s class batting, really,” he added.
De Kock smashed a 143-ball 104 in the second Test in Hobart to help the visitors recover from 132-5 to post a competitive 326. South Africa won by an innings and 80 runs to seal the series without top batsman de Villiers and premier fast bowler Dale Steyn, out with injuries.
De Kock played down comparison to Gilchrist. “I don’t see myself being like him…that’s the way I like to play,” he told reporters after the Hobart hundred. “The conditions determine how I play, I guess.”
It was in January this year that de Kock scored his maiden Test century, in the final Test against England in Centurion, after not being part of the Test tour of India late last year. In the only occasion that he opened in Test cricket, de Kock hit 82 and 50 against New Zealand to help hosts South Africa clinch the two-match series 1-0 in August.
De Kock averages an impressive 50.17 in 13 Tests since making his debut in February two years ago at home against Australia.
“A team has more chances of winning Test matches when you got a wicket keeper who is an excellent batsman walking in at No.7,” says former India wicketkeeper Kiran More, who played in 49 Tests and 94 ODIs from 1984-1993.
“That’s how the game is developing, the focus is on all-round abilities, it also gives the team options, to maybe play an extra seamer or two specialist spinners, depending on the conditions,” adds More, who was India’s chief selector from 2003-2006.
While we’ll never know how de Kock’s baseball career would have panned out, he certainly appears to have the makings of a great cricketer.