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Match Analysis

The de Kock issue South Africa need to address quickly

One: Free him of Test captaincy, Two: Have him bat at No. 6, where he's shown he's most comfortable

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
It was a difficult first day as Test captain for Quinton de Kock, South Africa v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Centurion, December 26, 2020

Quinton de Kock had a poor game as captain in Karachi  •  AFP via Getty Images

Now, we really need to talk about Quinton de Kock.
And we need to talk about that review. The one just before lunch. The one where Kagiso Rabada hit Imran Butt on the back as he turned away from a ball that kept low and would've, quite clearly, missed leg stump. The one where everyone, including de Kock, appealed in jest. Then, with an expression that said 'we've nothing to lose except another review', he called for the DRS.
Replays confirmed that even if leg stump had taken a walk to fourth or fifth stump, the ball still would have missed. De Kock's record of successful reviews in this Test remained at zero. In the overall analysis of the Test, this moment may not even feature, but at the time, it said something. It said de Kock, even if he didn't seem desperate, wasn't tactically astute. In the first innings too, he reviewed after two errors, all more costly than the one dissected above.
De Kock first used DRS against Azhar Ali in the first innings off an Anrich Nortje delivery with Pakistan on 35 for 4. It made sense to try and dislodge another and heap pressure. But the impact was outside off and Azhar survived. Mistakes happen.
The second, also against Azhar, was off George Linde's left-arm spin. Azhar had come forward to defend and it wasn't conclusive if the ball hit the bat or the pad first. It was so inconclusive that even the third umpire could not take a decisive call. South Africa may have been unlucky to have lost the review, but they lost it nonetheless. You'd think that should have made de Kock more discerning about when to use the third review.
He decided to call for Mohammed Rizwan off a Lungi Ngidi delivery that jagged back in and hit him on leg. At first glance, it seemed an optimistic appeal and replays showed it was missing leg by some distance. Pakistan were 156 for 5 at that point and South Africa had to bowl for another 50 overs without any reviews.
Add to that de Kock's drop of Faheem Ashraf, when he moved too late to take what would have been Rabada's 200th wicket, his rash stroke in the first innings, his asking of Aiden Markram, part-time offspinner, to bowl with the second new ball when it was just 10 overs old, some of the field settings during the Fawad and Faheem stand and the lack of accountability he showed afterwards. It's fair to say this was not de Kock at his best.
Asked what South Africa could do to avoid batting collapses, de Kock did not know. "If I knew I would let you know and if we knew how to fix them we wouldn't be doing it in the first place," he said. Then asked whether there was a way South Africa's spinners could have done better, de Kock did not know, again. "If there is, I'd like to know how and what we didn't do right."
Asked if there was something different South Africa could have done with their team selection, given the last minute injury to wristspinner Tabraiz Shamsi and the wealth of seamers in the squad, de Kock did not know. "I haven't really thought about it."
He acknowledged that South Africa's first innings of 220 was not good enough and that it cost them the game - which it did - along with the 8 for 60 in the second innings. But the rest of his post-match assessment was uninspiring in its dourness. All that said, we need to cut de Kock some slack and see if the issue lies elsewhere.
It's only de Kock's third Test as captain and he is in charge of a team that has won just three of their last 12 Tests. South Africa are also on a 13-Test streak without a win in Asia dating back to July 2014. He has been burdened with the leadership in all formats, is the wicket-keeper in all formats, and expectations on him as a batsman, and perhaps the most talented batsman in the line-up, to perform are high.
De Kock is dealing with a lot and even though the team management insist they are taking as much as they can off de Kock's hands  - Mark Boucher does more press engagements than previous coaches, for example - they may need to more, and do it quickly, starting with where de Kock bats.
Since being promoted to No. 5 against England last January, de Kock has scored 160 runs in six innings. Add the 18 he made at Lord's in 2017 in that spot, and he averages 29.33 at No. 5, below his overall average of 37.70 and well below the 49.87 in his most preferred No. 7 spot.
South Africa's reasons for batting de Kock at No.5 are obvious. He is an aggressive batsman who can easily wrest an advantage and so, they want him to have as much time in the middle as possible once a foundation has been laid. But that means they are left with a specialist batsman, Temba Bavuma in this case, batting lower than de Kock and often rendered largely ineffective because of the amount of time he spends with the lower-order.
Bavuma has spent more than a fifth of his career batting with the tail, more than any other specialist batsman since his debut in 2014. That could be part of the reason he has only one Test century to his name - scored five years ago - and it could also be part of the reason he bats ultra conservatively when we know he can be more proactive. His 40 in the second innings here showed him to be technically sound, adept against the spinners and at times, urgent.
Given the statistical evidence and the cricketing logic, it would seem South Africa have a simple fix. Switch de Kock and Bavuma's batting positions so that their captain, wicket-keeper and best batsman is positioned where he is most comfortable and their specialist can do his job.
But there are also other things South Africa can do to lessen de Kock's load; one of the things that is sure to enter the conversation is to release him from the captaincy. That would require South Africa to make either another temporary appointment or to look at a medium-to-long term solution based on what they've seen from the candidates so far. And if the latter is what they go with, then Dean Elgar is the frontrunner to take over.
His current hand injury aside, and luckily for him it's not a fracture but severe bruising, Elgar appears available and in the right kind of form to lead by example and probably should have been considered as soon as du Faf Plessis stood down last January. Since 2016, Elgar has been the most prolific opening batsman in world cricket, with more runs and more hundreds than anyone else. He is the most experienced player in the squad apart from du Plessis and is arguably the most dogged. He has even indicated it's a job he wants to do.
At 33, Elgar could play for another four or five years and can lead South Africa through their transition. That would also give them the stability to move on to someone like Aiden Markram, long thought to be the captain-in-waiting, or someone else, but it would make sense to give the job to Elgar now. But not right now.
It probably won't be a good look or good for team and individual morale for South Africa to change captains mid-series so de Kock should continue to lead the team in Rawalpindi. The only way to relieve him there would be to bring in Kyle Verreynne to keep wickets, in place of the allrounder, or move him down the order to No.7.
But when de Kock returns home with the Test side after their match on February 8, he should do so knowing someone else will take the reins for Australia, a series that has historically been hard-fought on and off the field.
If that happens that will not mean de Kock is any less of a player or any less important to South Africa. In fact, the opposite. It will mean he is so crucial that someone has talked about him and decided he needs to be looked after better,

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent