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Cricket news - De Kock breaks out of bubble with peerless display

Quinton de Kock's innings on Day 2 was built of grit and quality

Quinton de Kock's innings on Day 2 was built of grit and quality

And on the second day in St Lucia, Quinton de Kock took a knee. Feeling a crampy groin, inner thigh, or hip flexor - it wasn't clear which in the moment - he sank to earth and stretched the troubling muscle. But not for long. He was, after all, eight runs shy of a century. Which was his with a meaty heave over square leg for six, sparking a throaty roar from the dressingroom.

It was an innings heavy with context. The last time De Kock scored a Test hundred, against India in Visakhapatnam in October 2019, or 20 completed innings ago, he was not yet South Africa's captain in the format. He had also not yet been relieved of the leadership in all formats, nor become the first player from his country to take what CSA called a mental health break.

"Being in so many bubbles took its toll," De Kock told an online press conference after stumps on Friday (June 11). "It was just too much, and that was it - I asked for a break; if I could just relax for the T20 series [against Pakistan] back home [in April]. They deemed it a mental break, whatever it is. I wasn't mentally tired from cricket. I was just tired of bubbles. I just had enough of them. We were on the road, starting from the IPL [in the UAE from September to November last year]. The Pakistan bubble [in Karachi and Rawalpindi in January and February] was particularly difficult, going from the changeroom to one floor of rooms - no balconies, no room to move."

His innings on Friday was built of grit and quality. Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen showed stickability before being undone by faulty strokes, but De Kock actually did stick around. And play properly: with discipline and, given the chance, flair. His unbeaten 141 was his sixth century and the highest score he has reached in his 87 Test innings, and marked the most balls he has faced in a trip to the crease in this format: 170.

It was just the innings his team needed to maintain the advantage they seized on Thursday by dismissing West Indies for 97. Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje took nine wickets between them to reconfirm the old truth that South Africa are a pace powerhouse. But their batting has been brittle, as borne out by the 10 losses they have suffered in their previous 13 Tests. Should South Africa win - and, with a remaining lead of 143 and needing six wickets to earn an innings victory, they should - De Kock will be credited by many with the performance that sealed his side's success.

There was a lot to like about his innings, not least that it was scored on a challenging pitch and a sluggish outfield, and against a disciplined, focused pace attack. Mostly, he had to venture out of his comfort zone to fetch his runs. Few came to him. Purely in cricket terms, then, De Kock was peerless. But cricket isn't pure: it doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is squarely inside a world where boundaries aren't set by players or administrators but by the wider society of which the game is just a part.

A good deal of that society would have noticed that De Kock was the only person on the field who didn't exercise one of the three options made available to the South Africans when the teams and officials showed their support for the fight for social justice before the start of the match. He neither knelt, raised his right fist, nor stood to attention. Instead he stood casually, hands behind his back. Why did he do that?

"My reason? I'll keep it to myself. It's my own, personal opinion. It's everyone's decision; no-one's forced to do anything, not in life. That's the way I see things." Except that, when the world makes itself blind to injustice, people are forced into action. Sometimes by getting themselves elected, staging a revolution, protesting, or taking a knee.

Maybe De Kock's stance on Thursday was, in his estimation, respectful. Others would find that difficult to believe. The latter plot will only have been thickened by De Kock, when he reached 50 and 100, pulling off his right glove to use his thumb to hold down his third finger and then, separately, his second. He explained afterwards that that was a tribute to someone who had been wounded in Afghanistan: "His finger being shot off is quite a highlight in our group of friends. So I said if I get to a milestone I'll do that just for him. I couldn't believe it happened the first time since I said I would, and I'm sure my phone is going to be buzzing with the boys' group."

De Kock also drew attention to a bat sticker showing his support for a rhino conservation organisation. That is a noble cause which is well worth promoting. But some of those who were struck by his starkly cold display on Thursday will wonder why he was willing to explain one of his actions but not another. And, however unfairly, whether he cares more about animals than he does about people. His supporters will point to his finger gesture as evidence of the contrary. For a man who is often painted as uncomplicated, this De Kock fella is anything but.

The West Indians likely won't be among the De Kock doubters or defenders, not least because they have too much else to think about. Having come into the series on the back of winning both Tests in Bangladesh in February and garnering a draw in their home rubber against Sri Lanka in March, they would have considered themselves to be on the up. Especially against a side that arrived in search of the team they used to be.

The events of the first two days will have disabused the Windies of that notion. They have been bested in the pace battle, and taught how to bat in their own conditions. Consequently, Dean Elgar has worn a broad smile more often than not in St Lucia. He hasn't needed to look for reasons to be cheerful in his first Test as South Africa's appointed captain. But here's one, anyway: Friday was his 34th birthday.