Quentin de Kock. One of the most exciting batsmen to be walking out at No 4 in the modern game.
The requirement — 445 more runs. The pillar to hold the innings together in such circumstances, Hashim Amla, has just trudged back, his vacillation between leaving and playing the ball resulting in yet another wide smile, joyous gleam in the excited pair of eyes and jubilantly pumped fists of Toby Roland-Jones. The Middlesex bowler’s honeymoon on debut refuses to end.
Yes, Quentin de Kock comes in with the score on 47 for 2.
The need of the hour is occupation of the crease. Perhaps if we think in hypothetical terms, not statistical mind you — because probabilities will tell us of the impossibilities … if we think of it in purely hypothetical terms of the platonic ideal of a chase, then counter attack can win even such a Test match. In reality, it is as near impossibility as it gets.
The third ball de Kock faces from Ben Stokes is slightly short, slightly wide. De Kock flashes at it. The bat is not perfectly horizontal, not perfectly vertical. It comes down at an angle halfway between the two, something no coach will ever prescribe. It flies off the outside edge, over the slips, for four.
A slice of fortune, a stroke of luck, a slice of a stroke anyway.
However, three balls later Stokes fires in this incredible yorker. It almost crushes the toe of de Kock’s front foot. The bat is not yet down as the ball rushes through. The dreaded rattle is heard. De Kock gone for 5 off six deliveries. 52 for 3.
Faf du Plessis has been an excellent captain. No doubt about that.
There is no point in blaming him for the substantial scores England put up in the two innings. With Vernon Philander, the most potent of the weapons in his arsenal, neutralised by a stomach bug, there was very little that du Plessis could do to curb the English progress.
But, at least in one aspect of the current Test match one cannot help but wondering if he has missed a rather obvious trick. Or it may be the team management that is at fault.
A target of 492 means, as explained above, the task of playing out time. It is not that the South African plan was any different. The way Amla approached his knock was clear indication that he was out to try and play out time. Block, keep the ball out, don’t play unless absolutely necessary. The hesitant prod-turned-leave-turned-prod that brought an end to his 37-ball stint for 5 was testimony to this very mindset.
Perhaps, as a lot of people will agree, one cannot keep blocking for all those sessions. Especially on a wicket where there is still something for the bowlers, even after the sun finally broke through the clouds at The Oval. But South Africa did not have too many options other than sticking out there and trying to play out time.
The men who have done that successfully are few in number in the modern game. But the Proteans did have two of them in their midst. Amla and du Plessis.
De Kock is a terrific batsman. He is the ideal to change the complexion of a match in the course of a few overs. But the complexion of this match has been so stained in favour of England, that a few overs would never suffice. A full day would perhaps.
Du Plessis has a track record of executing successful blockathons. Real blockathons. 376 balls at Adelaide, for 110 not out. 134 off 309 against India at Johannesburg. 39 off 152 at Nagpur is one of his minor efforts.
The highest number of balls that De Kock has faced in an innings in his Test career is 152.
He has never batted for more than three and a quarter hours. Du Plessis has batted nearly eight hours once, more than six and a half hours twice, on another occasion for six hours.
Why, in such circumstances, should the captain come in with three wickets down, the probability of saving the match so low that he tends to ask himself ‘why bother’?
Indeed, there was definitely a question of this sort running in his mind. Else why would he pad up to a straight ball immediately on coming in, for the second fatal time in the match?
There is no way that de Kock should have gone ahead of du Plessis in this innings. That move was, to put it mildly, a blunder.
Even in the first innings, under cloud cover, the ball swinging around, Roland-Jones bowling with every bit of enthusiasm of a wildly successful debutant, de Kock was not the ideal man to come in at No 4.
Let us take a look at the eventual results.
The Protean middle order batsmen from 3 to 5 made 34 runs between them in this Test, their worst performance since 1955. Incidentally, that 1955 match was also at The Oval, when the three batsmen, Headley Keith, Russell Endean and Roy McLean, managed 6 together. They had been up against Jim Laker and Tony Lock on a dusty Oval surface.
This piece of data underlines that there was something wrong in the approach. Plans went awry, and by the time du Plessis arrived at the wicket, his mind was full of misgivings and he was not thinking straight. Unfortunately for him, on both occasions, the bowlers were bowling dead straight.
South Africa are already faced with the worse of the conditions, the indisposition of their main bowler, and a couple of England players who can do no wrong. Roland-Jones continues to get wickets, and if he is not doing that he keeps middling the ball. Anything that Stokes touches nowadays turns into gold.
Besides, although hampered by a couple of greenhorns in their top order, the England side was fortunate to find steely resolve and willingness to learn in Tom Westley. The third debutant of the outfit deserves a few words about his performance. He batted with a splendid application and grew in confidence and temperament through his maiden half century. It was exemplified by the change one saw in him during the course of an over. His stepping out and trying to cart Keshav Maharaj almost immediately as the bowler was introduced had almost seen him holing out. By the time he played the last ball of the over, Westley was executing a mature risk-free on-drive for way better results. With the captain Joe Root, Johnny Bairstow, and even some pyro-techniques from Stokes bearing immense fruit, the England total was more than a formidable one the second time.
With the odds so heavily stacked against them already, this error of batting order from the team management proved really expensive.
Yes, Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma have done well to see the side through to stumps, and the gutsy show by the former deserves all the kudos.
But it will take a miracle for South Africa to come up with anything resembling competition on the final day at The Oval.