Ben Jones analyses how the South African keeper is severely underrated, and is arguably the finest ODI opener going around.
Discussion around the South African side ahead of this World Cup has focused largely on their attack. Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Dale Steyn and Imran Tahir form the bulk of arguably the tournament’s most fearsome bowling line-up, and overall it’s probably likely that any South African success will be down to that quartet.
However, they are ably supported by the batting. Whilst it isn’t as terrifying as some, it’s solid and substantial all the way down to No.5, and you would expect them to consistently post totals around 300 which, with their attack are definitely defendable. It’s only a coincidence that both Faf du Plessis and Imran Tahir play for Chennai Super Kings in the IPL – a bowling heavy side whose batting is reliable if not explosive – but there is a shared ethos between those teams. Responsibility from the batsmen, and trust that the bowlers can get the job done.
Indeed, if there was a star player with the bat, it’s not one you’d think of straight away. It’s not the muscular charisma of Du Plessis himself, the elegance of Hashim Amla or the T20-based brutality of David Miller. Instead, it’s the meek left-hander at the top of the order, perennially squinting out from underneath a helmet lid, the opposite of a poster boy. It begs the question; how underrated is Quinton de Kock?
Since the last World Cup, De Kock has made 2971 runs opening the batting in ODIs. That is a vast amount, a tally only beaten by Rohit Sharma for openers in that period, and the South African has played fewer matches than those around him. What’s more those runs have come at an average of more than 50, and at a brisk 6.05rpo. That sort of record isn’t common.
At CricViz, our Impact model calculates the average number of runs that any player contributes above or below what we’d expect. Hopefully, it gives a better impression of how effective a batsman is than simply a pure batting average. Since the last World Cup, De Kock’s Average Batting Impact is 11.6 – that’s the best in the world, after Virat Kohli.
This naturally takes into account the conditions a batsman is playing, and doesn’t punish players who are working in tough conditions; this plays into De Kock’s hands. The only batsman in the world who consistently contributes more to his team’s cause than De Kock, is arguably the best to ever play the format.
In a way, the more interesting part of De Kock’s success is that it’s gone relatively under the radar. His record is outstanding in terms of the runs it’s yielded, but few people herald him in the way they do other, more inconsistent talents. Ask a fan to name the five best ODI openers in the world, and you’ll cycle through a fair few Indian and English names before De Kock even comes up. That’s fine, of course – but it’s a curious oversight.
Perhaps part of his lack of appreciation is that De Kock is a little bit in the middle of everything. In an age where, globally, people are scrambling to find the extremes of everything, he remains in the middle, a mixture of qualities and skills. He’s neither one nor t’other. He’s neither super attacking or super defensive; he’s neither England nor India; he’s not Blur or Oasis, he’s Pulp; he’s not Pep or Mourinho, he’s Ancelotti. By standing in the middle, he stands for very little, and that counts against him.
He isn’t a Chris Gayle (a slow starter who accelerates), or a Jonny Bairstow (who charges out of the blocks). His scoring rate in the first 20 balls of an innings is 5.11rpo, quicker than the average for established openers (4.71rpo), but down on the super-aggressive starters like Bairstow and Colin Munro. You watch him, and you’re neither compelled to think “gosh, he’s taking his time” or “yikes, he’s started like a house on fire”. He slips under the radar, and before you know it, he’s 50* (55).
He doesn’t struggle notably against pace or spin. The slightly wonky imbalance of a Jason Roy, so obviously dominant against pace and in pieces against spin, is to many more endearing to the effective all-round competence of De Kock. He averages 45 and 57 against spin and pace respectively, since the last World Cup – no bowler his Achilles heel, no bowler his lamb to the slaughter.
His dominance is built on a rather more basic strength. The really decisive factor in De Kock’s success is not anything extreme or unusual, nothing built of ‘philosophy’ or anything so abstract; he has, through technical excellence, all but eradicated risk from his batting. He can play with remarkably few edges or misses in any given innings, especially for someone batting at more than a run-a-ball, and that is a hell of a skill to have. Just 13.5% of the balls he’s faced have brought a false shot, a figure that’s just slightly less than the average for all players in Test cricket. The most effective way to ensure you make runs, is to play with no risk and remain at the crease, and so it’s no coincidence that Rohit Sharma, the only opener with more runs than him, is the only one to play with less risk.
The basic principles of ODI batsmanship are adhered to – keeping busy, not getting stuck at one end. Only two openers (David Warner and Jonny Bairstow) have a lower dot-ball percentage than De Kock since the last World Cup. He stand out in some respects, but it’s in subtle, missable areas; he’s a remarkably legside dominant player, with 57.2% of his runs have come through the onside. Of established openers (min 20 innings) since the last World Cup, only four men have scored more of their runs through leg. This is offset by is offside game is though, competent and effective, as his trademark cut shot (with which he averages 99.75) has made clear. His method is clear, relied upon, and reliable.
However, it might not be this all-round consistency that stops people appreciating De Kock. There is a certain quality to De Kock, a particular air of absent-mindedness, that almost makes you dismiss his achievements as accidental. As Daniel Gallan wrote in a recent article for The Cricket Monthly, “Perhaps it is those slightly droopy eyes; de Kock often looks like he is one soothing lullaby away from deep sleep.” When the man playing the shots looks unbothered, almost confused by the shots he’s playing, it’s far trickier to be thrilled by them than when, say, a bristling Indian No.3 is staring the bowler down, biceps tensed, ready to charge. Kohli and De Kock have batted together for RCB many times, and the popularity of one rather explains the lower profile of the other.
Equally, South African cricketing culture is different to many others. Stars are forged there, but they tend to make their true name elsewhere. Back in the day, that would have been through huge Test performances in Asia, England, and the West Indies; now, it’s through dominating the IPL. De Kock has made steps towards the latter, but has struggled profoundly away from home in ODI cricket. It’s perverse, really – few places in the world are harder for batsmen than South Africa, but home conditions do seem to really suit De Kock’s strengths. His average in home ODIs since the last World Cup is significantly higher than it is away from home.
This isn’t to claim, without caveat, that De Kock is the second best ODI batsman in the world. Impact is one of a number of tools we can use to assess batsmen, and whilst we may feel it’s more valuable than others, it’s merely part of the discussion. The more salient point is that, despite his achievements, De Kock is a man rarely brought up when discussing the crop of batsman fighting to be the best of the rest, the group behind Kohli – and that isn’t fair. It’s probably, on balance, because he doesn’t have the intense furore behind him that many benefit from.
Which is why, with a World Cup about to start, he serves as a rather nice lesson. Cricketing excellence comes from all over the world, in all different guises and in plenty of different styles. It can, in the focused environment of the next seven weeks, become a bit too easy to want players to fail, to want teams to fail, to benefit your own side and to prove your own assessments correct. Yet we’re lucky – this is a festival of cricket, with something for everyone, and we should celebrate that. Quinton de Kock will walk out to bat against England tomorrow with the world watching, and in truth many will be hoping he spoils the hosts’ party. From what we’ve seen over the last four years, there are few better candidates on the market to do so.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.