Cape Town – Quinton de Kock did more than just blast a breakthrough maiden Test century against England at Centurion on Saturday.
Naturally it was a joyous personal development for the baby-faced wicketkeeper-batsman -- but his innings also served as the focal point in a very welcome show of prolonged defiance by the Proteas’ hitherto notoriously vulnerable tail on day two of the fourth and final Test.
We have known for some time that the tourists bat a lot deeper on paper than South Africa do, and that advantage has occasionally been demonstrated in the middle, too, as a factor in their wresting away the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy ahead of this dead-rubber contest.
With someone like Stuart Broad – Test best 169 – possibly only due to take guard at No 10 at SuperSport Park and England already off quite solidly in reply to the Proteas’ formidable first innings of 475, plenty of honest, patient graft still lies ahead if AB de Villiers’s side are to end a run of nine matches without a victory.
But there have already been early positives to bank in the fixture for the deposed No 1 side in the world rankings, now seeking to regroup in a hurry: the two most obvious ones are the first-time Test centuries in quick succession from opening batsman Stephen Cook (115, on debut) and now De Kock (129 not out).
As statistical guru Andrew Samson pointed out in a tweet, the last time two South Africans recorded their maiden tons in the same innings was at Manchester in 1955, when Johnny Waite – like De Kock, a gloveman stationed at No 7 – compiled 113 and No 8 Paul Winslow 108.
If the Proteas are in the business of detecting good omens, SA eventually won that Old Trafford Test by three wickets.
With his often swashbuckling knock at almost exactly a run a ball, De Kock is very much back on track in the quest – a difficult one, naturally – to make him another “Adam Gilchrist” type of customer in the lower-middle order at Test level.
It was also heartening from a future point of view that whilst Cook reached his milestone at the notably advanced age of 33, De Kock only turned 23 shortly before Christmas so potentially has a much longer career in the five-day format still ahead of him for the Proteas.
The left-hander was involved in three significant partnerships, the first a key stabiliser of 62 runs for the sixth wicket with Temba Bavuma after South Africa had lost four wickets in the space of some 14 overs.
That alliance, much of it against the challenge of a new ball, was a major shot in the arm which quelled a budding England fightback.
But the really unexpected resistance was to follow as De Kock, growing all the while in own chutzpah, found adhesive friends in first Kyle Abbott and then Dane Piedt – their partnerships would be worth 50 and 82 runs respectively.
Not only was it the first time both bowlers have featured in half-century stands for their country, but Abbott (16 off 33 balls) and Piedt (19 off a particularly stubborn 104 deliveries negotiated with a pleasingly straight blade) also achieved their highest personal scores in still relatively fledgling Test careers.
De Kock could have done a better job at times in ensuring he saw more of the strike, but there is also a case for saying there is no harm in trusting – and by extension empowering – lesser batsmen to fulfil their part of the grind-down job on the rival attack.
Perhaps all you do when you too actively or neurotically attempt to shield your partner is simply remind the opposition of his frailty?
With someone like Simon Harmer still breathing down Piedt’s neck for the main spinner’s place and a fit-again Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander soon to challenge for fast bowling spots which will imperil Abbott, those two aren’t guaranteed consistent SA selection yet.
But when close calls have to be made by selectors, bowlers who have shown a willingness to contribute solidly to the cause outside their specialist comfort zones may find themselves earning the nod ... and Abbott and Piedt have demonstrated that a bit of grit to offset talent or technical limitations at the crease can go a long way.
Not too long after the suspension of isolation, South Africa’s Test team had a determined bunch of tail-enders who competed fiercely among themselves statistically to prop up the batting cause but also took pride in each others’ successes at their secondary trade whenever they came.
Restoring that spirit will only help the Proteas’ drive to dominate the planet once more.
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