NEIL MANTHORP: De Kock breaks the mould of SA captains
Every SA team in the modern era has been well and truly captained. It’s the SA way. The captain stands at the front, rallies the troops and makes rousing speeches.
He leads the celebrations, reads the riot act and consoles a dejected teammate. He demonstrates who is in charge.
Barring a few exceptions, the players wouldn’t have had it any other way. Most not only expect to be captained, they want to be — perhaps even need to be. Having a “strong” captain allows the troops to keep their heads down, metaphorically. It means they don’t have to make hard choices or difficult decisions.
SA couldn’t have had two more archetypal captains to start the new era than Clive Rice and Kepler Wessels. Streetwise, tough and uncompromising, they set the tone for Hansie Cronjé. The first three men to lead a unified national team were rarely questioned and, if they were, the inquisitor didn’t last long.
Shaun Pollock came closest to breaking the mould with his more cerebral and sensitive approach, but there was an element of “disconnect” between him and many of the players because, being a teetotaller, he wasn’t able to sit down and thrash out disagreements in the ranks over a beer or eight.
Graeme Smith’s story is truly extraordinary, beginning from a point at which he elevated traditional macho captaincy to new heights and finishing a decade later as the most nuanced tactician and leader of men the country’s cricketers had ever had.
Hashim Amla may have rivalled that reputation had he not been in the position so briefly and reluctantly, while AB de Villiers, like many before him, found the gap between individual genius and team captaincy a tricky one to bridge.
For most of the past five years in over 100 international games across the formats, the team has been led by Faf du Plessis — mostly superbly.
There is a difference between leading a team and captaining it, of course, but whereas Du Plessis may have tended too easily and quickly towards defence as his team became weaker on the field, the esteem and affection with which the players regarded him only grew stronger Are those days now over?
Quinton de Kock is nothing like any of his predecessors. As Mark Boucher admitted on Sunday: “He is unique, and that uniqueness might just be perfect for this change room.”
De Kock does no leading at all and barely fulfils the minimum requirements of captaincy — by traditional SA standards. It seemed a desperate gamble bordering on reckless when he was first given the job, yet there is a contagious, slightly bewildered admiration for what happens on his watch.
When an inexperienced player instinctively looks for an example, he sees De Kock carrying on as normal. When they want advice or expect to be told what to do, they get that characteristic and charismatic Quinny “look” that says: “You got picked to play for SA, you’ll figure it out …”
“He’s a man of few words” is a recurring theme from those asked about his captaincy.
“He will make mistakes but he will learn from them and get better and better.”
De Kock is only 27 but has been playing international cricket for seven years. Nonetheless, his rise to the captaincy still inspires mirth among the other senior players. Not disrespectful in any way, more contented confusion as in: “How did that happen?”
Boucher says De Kock may struggle with the “off-field stuff” that comes as part of the job.
“We may have to help him out with that.”
Unless, when Du Plessis returns to the T20 side against Australia next week, he does so as captain.
“Faf is still one of our best T20 players but we felt he needed an extended period away from international cricket,” Boucher said.
The portents suggest the reign of Du Plessis may have come to an end. For the whole summer he has remained committed to the idea of leading the team to the T20 World Cup in Australia at the end of the year before retiring from international cricket, but those further up the food chain may decide that he and the team will be better off with him in the ranks.
On the other hand, three weeks at home and a proper period of reflection may have produced the freshness that had been lacking against England.
De Kock and Du Plessis are at polar ends of the captaincy spectrum but the Proteas may be equally well served by either of them. The best mix, though, may be a composite.
As captains, they could learn from each other, as unlikely as that may seem.