SA's contrasting openers combine well
Quinton de Kock and Chad Bowes, South Africa's opening batsmen, are among the highest run-scorers of the group stage of the Under-19 World Cup. De Kock is first, with 226 runs, while Bowes is third, with 179. In each of South Africa's three matches, at least one of them has made a significant score. Against Namibia, both made hundreds in a total of 359. Not bad for batsmen who are touring Australia for the first time.
They haven't even been opening together for very long. De Kock is from Johannesburg and Bowes is from Durban, so while they've played a lot against each other, they only began opening for South Africa in the one-day tri-series involving Pakistan and Zimbabwe in January. They've forged a partnership since.
Their contrasting styles complement each other. De Kock, a powerfully built left-hand wicketkeeper-batsman, is more aggressive, while Bowes, a more slender right-hander, prefers to start slowly and then catch up.
"You could say I'm a pretty orthodox opening batter," Bowes says. "I like to play straight and as I get my time in the middle I like to expand my shot selection. Rotate the strike with Quinton and let him do the damage up front."
De Kock says he "connects really well" with Bowes. "He starts a little bit slow but he always seems to give me the strike, which I enjoy," de Kock says. "Once he's in then he plays his game. We always try to look for a single off a good ball instead of just blocking and getting no run."
On the eve of their quarterfinal against England, de Kock knows he'll be targeted. He toured England in the summer of 2011 and was the highest run-scorer in the seven-match one-day series. England fast bowler Reece Topley and captain Adam Ball have said they have plans for de Kock. "In England they didn't like me at all," de Kock says. "So I know they'll come hard at me tomorrow. I shouldn't have a problem, I'm going to just do my thing, keep my own focus. Not going to be bothered with what they do."
There's a subtext to the de Kock-Bowes partnership. Bowes wasn't on that Under-19 tour to England. He only broke into the team during the tri-series in January involving Pakistan and Zimbabwe. De Kock was already established by then and was the captain. Bowes, however, was named captain for the World Cup, leaving de Kock to focus on his roles of key batsman and wicketkeeper. Both batsmen say the change in leadership has improved performance.
"They decided they didn't want to put too much pressure on me, which I accept fully," de Kock said. "I think it's been a good decision, Chad's doing an awesome job as captain. Everything is going to plan."
The Under-19 World Cup is effectively Bowes' first assignment as captain and he's had good results so far, winning both warm-up matches and all three Group D games. "I knew it would be a challenge but I was up for it. I have captained a few provincial or state teams back in South Africa, so I do have an idea of what to do," Bowes says. "I have a lot of respect for all the guys in the team and they respect me so I'm able to communicate with everyone well. I have a good relationship with the coach, we communicate well with each other, it's been good so far."
Being a left-hand, aggressive wicketkeeper-batsman, de Kock looked up to Adam Gilchrist as he was growing up. His strike-rate far at the World Cup is 108 and in three-day matches for Gauteng he averages more than 60 and strikes at 90. He's played a few limited-overs games for Lions too, but without much success, and hopes to get more opportunities with them next season.
Bowes' idol is not someone who is remembered for his batting - Jonty Rhodes. "All I wanted to do was field like him," he says. "He got me passionate for the game. Guys have referred to me as the Jonty of the team so I'm pretty pleased with that. I do pride myself in my fielding and winning games from that position like Jonty did." Bowes says he usually fields at point and cover too, like Rhodes, but isn't at the moment because of a broken finger and will be at mid-off at the start.
South Africa prepared for this World Cup in their own way, preferring an intensive camp at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria over overseas tours as a method of building the team. It meant that on coming to Australia, the openers had to adjust quickly to an environment they'd never been in before. De Kock said it was only his third time out of the country for cricket but adapting had been no problem. They'd even prepared for the spin they'd face against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and later on in the tournament during their camp.
"I just needed to get used to one or two of the conditions, the extra bounce," de Kock said. "We do have one or two such pitches in South Africa but not as much as in Australia. Takes one or two innings, a couple of net sessions, and then I'm on my way."
Their coach Ray Jennings is renowned for running a tight ship and Bowes said that they had developed a strong work ethic during their time at the High Performance Centre. "We got a saying that we learnt at the camp, 'Looking after the pennies will look after the pound.' So do the small things right and the bigger things will come later."
That attitude is perhaps best captured by de Kock's response when asked whether he was happy with his performance in the World Cup so far. "Fairly satisfied but not quite where I want to be," he said. "I feel like I could do a lot better, got lots more to prove. I did miss out on one game, a bad run out, not great decision-making from me."
De Kock and Bowes will walk out on Sunday in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Tony Ireland Stadium in Townsville to face perhaps the quickest new-ball attack in the World Cup - Topley and Jamie Overton. It will be their toughest task in Australia yet.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo