Could Quinton de Kock’s decision to quit Test cricket start a perilous trend for the sport in South Africa?
A star player quitting the most prestigious version of the game in his prime should send alarm bells ringing in South African cricket. It raises the spectre of free agency, which threatens to destroy local talent stocks.
On the second-last day of 2021, Quinton de Kock announced his retirement from Test cricket aged 29, roughly the age at which late developers like Mike Hussey are making their debuts.
All the right things were said in the press releases and there was a flurry of comments on social media. After that came the deafening silence, which arrives after a fielding side’s champion fast bowler has been thrashed through the covers for four. Nothing, zilch, nada.
Less than a week later and the Proteas levelled the series against India, thanks to their seven-wicket win at the Wanderers, a Test in which De Kock played no part. Kyle Verreynne, De Kock’s replacement, was neat behind the stumps in the bullring, and so De Kock’s importance to the side receded still further.
Sorry, Quinnie who? Looks like we’re pretty okay without him, don’t you think?
This, of course, is thinking fraught with peril. De Kock, let’s not forget, was the most carelessly gifted cricketer of his generation. He could skin an attack by a hundred lashes, each whip of the bat more painful than the last.
Of some players – think the scampering Jonty Rhodes – it was said that they could race to a quick 30 without you realising. De Kock’s casual destruction was of a different order.
He could flick and thunder his way to a quick 40, or 50, with you only being vaguely aware of what was happening. He was the kind of player that you would pay to pick your pocket.
The only half-decent comparison to De Kock as far as local cricket is concerned is Herschelle Gibbs, who made his Western Province debut as a 16-year-old. Like De Kock, Gibbs was insouciant and carefree. He was also his own man, a complicated combination of the boyish, the charming and the perverse.
There’s a word for individuals like them: contrary. They are contrarians, liable to call a red ball white and a white ball red for the sheer thrill of pissing you off. Like all people who feel misunderstood, contrarians need to feel the love of those around them. And they need to feel listened to (which makes them feel understood).
Not feeling the love
De Kock felt neither. He’d had the captaincy of all three formats taken away from him and he had to suffer the indignity – as he saw it – of being asked to take the knee after the kerfuffle on the morning of the West Indies game in the T20 World Cup last October.
Look again and you can see his hurt (the word is used twice in the quote below) in the words he released after the Cricket South Africa (CSA) board intervened to demand that the players do the right thing: “I’ve been called a lot of things as a cricketer. Doff. Stupid. Selfish. Immature. But those didn’t hurt. Being called a racist because of a misunderstanding hurts me deeply.”
With the benefit of hindsight, those in the know should have seen this coming. Tony Irish, the former chief executive of the South African Cricketers’ Association (Saca), used to say that players are vulnerable to thoughts of retirement immediately post-World Cups.
“AB [de Villiers] was never the same after the devastating disappointment of the
semifinal loss against New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup. It’s a time that you proactively need to manage because it’s fluid – it can be a time of fatigue and high emotion.”
De Kock earned £100,000 (about R2-million) for a month’s work with the Southern Brave in the Hundred in July and August last year, and probably earns more than that with the Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League.
Come the end of the Centurion Test against India, he’d simply had enough of the enforced madness that comes from living in a bio-bubble. Two months after the T20 World Cup, he said: “Cheers, that’s me, I’m on my bike.”
Free agency flood?
De Kock’s retirement is instructive in other ways. It puts the kibosh on national coach Mark Boucher’s dream of forging a consistently competitive Test team and it raises the spectre of free agency, something that haunts local cricket because CSA is comparatively impoverished compared with the richer boards of England, India and Australia.
Taken to its logical conclusion, free agency threatens to denude the local game of its talent stocks because more money is available for less cricket in T20 leagues elsewhere.
Imagine if Kagiso Rabada, playing in his 50th Test at Newlands this past week, took the entirely understandable view that he wanted to become a T20 privateer. Imagine that Lungi Ngidi and Rassie van der Dussen followed suit. De Kock has beaten down the door. Others could follow.
Test cricket has cachet, to be sure, hence Rabada’s comments in the week that he still pinches himself that he’s come this far, but its promises are finite and its glories finally ephemeral. There are other delicious goodies in cricket’s confectionery store.
The players are known to be suspicious of the CSA board, and its penchant for interference and political point-scoring at their expense, and this is likely to have been another tug in the wrong direction for De Kock.
Pholetsi Moseki, CSA’s acting chief executive, admitted there was a problem to me before Christmas, and Elgar intimated as much in his pre-Test press conference prior to the first Test at Centurion on Boxing Day.
Mistrust in the system
Such mistrust will be widened further after the ODIs against India have run their course. Come February, Boucher and Graeme Smith will be hauled before an inquiry headed by an as yet to be named senior counsel.
The inquiry is the result of the Social Justice and Nation Building hearings last year, and Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza’s subsequent report into the “causes, nature and extent of racial discrimination in the sport going back 30 years”.
It was not wrong of Ntsebeza to assume that racial discrimination has occurred in our cricket since unity. Where his method failed was that he was always going to scratch at this particular sore, and was even prepared to entertain the dubious testimony – under oath, mind you – of convicted match-fixers to do so.
Such partiality will give Boucher and Smith cause for comfort – and their legal teams room for manoeuvre – as they attempt to explain whether or not they were improperly appointed.
Not that they have been blameless. One of the subtexts of Ntsebeza’s report is that he responded well to people who appeared before him in person. Boucher and Smith could have done this – Smith was advised to do so by David Becker, his lawyer – but neither availed themselves, preferring to send Ntsebeza detailed affidavits (two of them in Boucher’s case) instead.
Both would have avoided inordinate time, trouble and heartache if only they had had the courage to look Ntsebeza in the eye, which would have called his bluff. They didn’t, and now they have to suffer being fed piece by piece to the social media wolves.
While it is difficult to see what good will come of this – can systemic institutional failure really be left at the door of two men?
Ntsebeza’s astonishingly sloppy piece of work did achieve one meaningful success.
It meant that black cricketers, on the receiving end of thoughtlessness, casual racism and exclusion for many years, felt heard. Is it mere coincidence that, suddenly, when the hearings were in full swing, Aya Gqamane, Khaya Zondo and Grant Mokoena all rattled off first-class centuries, which is something black batters have consistently failed to do for so long? One suspects not. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.