Durban – If there was any lingering doubt about Quinton de Kock’s unique ability with the bat, it has been shattered – along with the Indian attack over the past fortnight.
Like any precocious talent is wont to do, the left-handed opener has started to produce shots that simply take the breath away – as much for their end result as their cheeky brilliance.
One of his trademarks is the nonchalant flick through mid-wicket to length balls that are pitched around off-stump – in stead of hitting it conventionally to mid-off, or cover perhaps.
It is something approaching Kevin Pietersen’s “flamingo shot”, and India’s pacemen have been left scratching their heads, as perfectly reasonable balls disappear to the fence in a hurry.
As the runs have flowed, De Kock’s natural flair has come to the fore. Spin with the new ball used to be his Achilles heel, as he used to grope at it anxiously, eager to feel the comfort of bat on ball.
As soon as the slightly-built upstart started to look comfortable against pace on his first tour in July, Sri Lanka’s Dinesh Chandimal would summon one of his tweakers, and the brakes were rapidly applied, and then the exit followed.
It is a measure of his startling progress in the latter part of this year that De Kock is now unrecognisable from that bright-eyed youngster who toiled in Sri Lanka. Spin seems to hold few demons for him now, regardless of when he confronts it.
Even the chirps have quietened down around him. There was a stage when Pakistan would have five or six fielders surrounding him after every ball, trying to intimidate him early on. Those fielders have spread towards the fence now, though, and De Kock – previously too shy to bark orders at seasoned stars – has found his own voice, cajoling his fielders and expressing ideas to the captain.
Over thepast two weeks, even while the country has been plunged into mourning, the 20-year-old has provided that ray of sunshine that can only come from youthful promise. Three times he has met the world’s best side. Three times he has raised his bat to acknowledge a century.
“I’ve just been blown away by his calmness at the crease. Guys like AB (de Villiers) will bear this out, but he also has a very good cricket brain, and he isn’t shy to change the field if he sees something. He’s just a massive talent, but we obviously don’t want to put too much pressure on him. “
High praise indeed, especially when it comes from the man regarded as the world’s best batsman, Hashim Amla.
“I’m just happy to stand at the other end and watch him blast away,” he added.
But there is a lot more to De Kock than just brute force. The third of his trilogy of tons was scored under some serious pressure, with the Proteas having slipped to 28 for three at Centurion. He reined himself in, and showed that he also has a healthy appetite for a scrap.
And it’s not just on the field that De Kock has shown a willingness to get stuck in.
At Kingsmead recently, he stayed behind after practice, punishing himself in a fitness session in the company of David Miller.
“Jeez, it’s hard work hey,” he puffed, in his easy-going style. “Believe it or not, I’ve already lost like 10 kilos since Sri Lanka. This is all muscle, china,” he chuckled this week.
Miller, one of the side’s genuine fitness freaks, laughed him away, but in private Miller admits to being hugely impressed by how keen De Kock is to work on any perceived weaknesses. When the former junior ace was first touted as a future Protea, his work ethic was questioned.
Miller, though, only knows De Kock the animal.
“He always wants to do a few extra shuttles, and he wants to push hard, too. It’s awesome to have his energy around the squad, and it’s quite nice not to be the youngster in the change-room anymore.”
On Wednesday De Kock joined a mightily impressive club of batsmen who have notched three successive ODI centuries, and the next time he pads up in a 50-over international, it will be against the might of Australia.
Already, some are calling for him to be involved in the Test matches, too. While those sentiments are well-meaning, they are also slightly premature.
To play as a Test wicket-keeper, De Kock still has a few creases to iron out.
He is making steady improvement as it is, but he admits that keeping in a Test is a different kettle of fish altogether. For one thing, he will have to prise the Lions’ four-day gloves off Thami Tsolekile, who has Test ambitions of his own.
That internal tussle will only intensify at the Lions, and Geoffrey Toyana will have to employ every bit of diplomacy he possesses to keep everyone satisfied. As the runs mount from De Kock, there is a yearning to see more of him.
Likewise, Tsolekile becomes ever more anxious to press for international honours, as his own window of opportunity closes ever slightly with each, passing De Kock master-class.
What we cannot deny is that De Kock will one day be a crucial part of South Africa’s plans, in all three forms of the game.
He is a mighty talent, and Russell Domingo deserves praise for the way he backed the youngster to come good, even when the wheels were wobbling in Sri Lanka.
The Proteas coach insisted that all De Kock needed was time, to find his feet at this level, and then he would show what a talent he was.
But surely, even he didn’t envisage it would go quite as swimmingly.
As keeper-batsman, De Kock is already punching above the normal expectations of a newcomer, making key decisions and weighing in with big runs. But he wouldn’t want it any other way. He’d far rather be in the thick of things, thrust in the deep end. “I just want to bat, and make runs. I don’t mind pressure, because I know there are a lot of great players coming behind me.”
It’s a fair enough assessment, and that security has allowed him the freedom of expression that has seen him run riot recently. And all this before his 21st birthday on Tuesday.
Already thrilled by De Kock the boy, South African audiences will be eagerly anticipating the grown-up version.