November 25, 2013

South Africa's wild young thing

Quinton de Kock forced himself into the national team with an array of breathtaking innings. Now he knows he must think about his game

There's a time during every over when the person batting with Quinton de Kock has a particular task to perform. That person, usually a man much older and more experienced his partner, has to pick his moment - after the first ball has been bowled, midway through the over, when de Kock has had a swish at a ball, has taken a risky run, or has been beaten - to go and say to him: "Take it easy, just take it easy."

De Kock can see the words coming. He can hear the words, laced with the disciplinary tone of a schoolteacher, before the sound hits his eardrum, and his response comes out robotically. "Cool, cool, I'm cool," he repeats, just like he does in the middle.

His boyish face breaks into a wide smile. The three journalists listening to the story stifle a giggle and de Kock uses the opportunity for some playful grandstanding. "Usually I used to say things like 'Okay, I've got this', now I just say 'It's cool' and I just accept it."

As Russell Domingo put it on the team's arrival from the UAE, de Kock is still seen as a "wild young thing", and so he needs the rest of the team to signpost the way towards a more cautious, measured style of play, though he is still allowed to rely on his discretion to bring out his big shots.

Aggressive strokeplay is how de Kock made his name. He forced his way into the national selectors' line of sight, and ultimately the team, with an array of Jackson Pollock-esque performances: they were colourful, they made no sense at first sighting, but they were magnificent to look at.

De Kock was the fifth-highest run-scorer in the 20-over competition two seasons ago and the leading man last season. He flayed bowling attacks with disdain. He did not need to be told to calm down.

When he was picked for South Africa, at first to play New Zealand at home, he thought he could do things in exactly the same way. In six innings it seemed he could, though his highest score was 31 in an ODI.

That same characteristic, on display in the Champions League Twenty20, resulted in a contract with Sunrisers Hyderabad, where his first major learning came. De Kock only played three matches for the IPL franchise and he remembers, with some humility, that he had an average of 2.00. The sample size was small but it seemed he struggled on slower surfaces and against the turning ball - two things not commonly found in South Africa, where he collected runs at will.

The same weaknesses were evident on South Africa's tour of Sri Lanka, and it set the usually carefree de Kock on a path of self-reflection. "I had to go and look at my faults," he said. "I had to turn a negative into a positive and it really made me go back and look at things differently."

De Kock came from a franchise environment that was built on care. When he told his coach, Geoffrey Toyana, he wanted to practise more, Toyana was only too happy to put the extra hours in with him. When he went to his senior-most team-mate Neil McKenzie and asked for advice, McKenzie not only dispensed it freely but worked with him in the nets to help him get it right.

"It was about having a game plan, because in the past sometimes I didn't have that. I didn't change too much - maybe I was a little tighter - but it was more about having plans"

Both Toyana and McKenzie were pleasantly taken aback by the dedication de Kock showed to improving. "Quinny realised what it would take to make it at international level and he was willing to put in the hard yards to get there," Toyana said. "He really wanted it."

De Kock's work ethic hovered at average levels before the Sri Lanka series but it soared above what anyone expected when he returned home. The time he spent in the nets threatened to rival even McKenzie's - who has earned a reputation as the last man to leave the practice ground - and the determination he showed told Toyana that de Kock was serious about playing for South Africa.

His efforts paid off as early as the Champions League Twenty20, a month after the Sri Lanka series. De Kock was Lions' top scorer and their only centurion, and his technique had noticeably improved. "It was about having a game plan, because in the past sometimes I didn't have that," he said. "I didn't change too much - maybe I was a little tighter - but it was more about having plans."

No longer was he swishing at every ball, expecting to connect and land it on the other side of the boundary. He was thinking about the game. He was also thinking about what many of his team-mates, opponents, coaches and media had said, and realised their words rang true.

"People have told me I have talent. Guys like Macky and Hashim [Amla] have told me that and sometimes I hate it because I have too many options," he said. "But they also told me it's all down to hard work. So I took that advice."

These days de Kock is one of the last people to leave the South African training sessions. He spends as much time as he can hitting balls, talking about strategies, and practicing his glovework. "I'm enjoying the keeping as well. It's something I am also working on," he said. "I never used to take this many catches in the past either."

De Kock has been touted as the future of South African cricket - he forms a partnership at the top of the order in limited-overs cricket that Faf du Plessis has called the "right combination of flair and stability", and his keeping wicket frees up AB de Villiers. He is also honing his longer-form game to be able to push for a place in the Test team in the years to come.

And until that happens, he understands that he will just have to take it easy and keep working. And it's something he is completely comfortable doing.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent