People toting guns tend to make us nervous. But we’re not Quinton de Kock, who was the picture of calm as he sat toying with a toothpick throughout an online press conference in Karachi on Monday. No weapons were in view, but from the way de Kock spoke it was easy to imagine the closest of several rifle butts and barrels lurking mere centimetres out of the shot.
“When we were coming here security was a concern, if not the biggest concern,” he said. “When we landed here we saw the amount of security that was going on, and everyone became a lot calmer.
“Over the days it’s become much less of a worry and we’ve been able to focus more and more on cricket. On the plane, guys were talking in terms of, ‘What about this …’. And then we landed and we saw the security. It’s something to be seen. They’ve taken so many measures and we can actually feel comfortable and focus on the cricket and not be worried at all about the security.”
Terrorism took international cricket away from Pakistan from 2009 to 2015. During that time the Pakistanis played 134 matches away and another 135 at neutral venues – 84 of them in the United Arab Emirates. But since May 2015 they have been able to host 28 games at home, not least because the government has provided a level of security afforded visiting heads of state.
“It looks like every corner is checked, all bases are covered and – touch wood – at the moment we’re feeling really safe,” De Kock said. “For now we’re just worrying about cricket.”
Maybe he was as unfussed as he seemed because, four days previously, he posted a video on social media that showed him catching and then releasing a ragged-tooth shark that was at least as long as South Africa’s captain is tall. De Kock, never happier than when he has a fishing rod in his hands, landed his prize on the shores of the lagoon in Knysna, where he lives. The ease with which he held the beast’s vast maw wide open, showing off its multiple rows of haphazardly placed, jagged teeth, suggested he was more comfortable than most being close to deadly danger.
“Those sharks are everywhere at the moment, those ‘raggies’, especially near the coastline – it’s the warmer water and it being summer,” De Kock said. “They’re pretty simple to catch. That was a medium-sized one. They get another 50, 60 kilogrammes bigger. I’ve seen some photos, and there’s been a couple of big ones coming out of the lagoon since I’ve left.”
Rather than proximity to lethal weapons or dangerous animals, De Kock seemed more perturbed about the effects on players and support staff of life within bio-bubbles to try and keep them out of the reaches of Covid-19.
“Eventually it will catch up with some players, from an emotional and mental side,” he said. “You’re trying to keep yourself mentally stable and perform for your country at once. There’s only so much of that you can carry on with. But you carry on because people back home want to watch good cricket and want to watch you perform. That keeps you motivated. I’ve only been home for a maximum of three weeks over the last five, six months. It’s been tough but I’m soldiering on.”
De Kock played in last year’s IPL, which means he entered his first bubble in early September. The tournament ended 17 days before South Africa’s white-ball series against England, which came to an abrupt halt with half the games unplayed when the visitors, spooked by cases of the virus detected inside the supposedly secure environment, went home on December 10. That was 16 days before the home Test series against Sri Lanka, which was concluded 10 days ahead of South Africa’s departure for Pakistan.
The proximity of those commitments means De Kock has spent much more of the past five months than he would have wanted to staring at the walls of his hotel room. And even the most luxurious hotel rooms become soulless deserts if they are little more than comfortable prison cells. So De Kock had reason to be cheerful that the Pakistan Cricket Board hasn’t required the South Africans to serve another sentence in not so splendid isolation.
“It helps that we don’t have to do two weeks’ quarantine,” he said. “Going forward, two weeks quarantine is almost out of the picture because we play so much cricket. It’s a big help that the Pakistan board let us come out and start preparing early.” But that didn’t mean there would be opportunity to indulge in some of the tourist activities offered in Pakistan’s biggest, most cosmopolitan city – like spotting sharks and other aquatic wildlife on a scuba safari off Churna Island, a two-hour drive from Karachi. “We haven’t really seen much of Pakistan,” De Kock said. “We’re across the road from our training facility, and we’re only allowed in our rooms and the team room. So we haven’t been able to see much of Pakistan at all. But the rooms look quite nice, at least.”
Getting to Pakistan had also been complicated by Covid-19: “An email came through saying our flight [on Friday] had been cancelled. But as soon as got the email we got a message from CSA to say don’t worry, things are already sorted. We were already on another flight. Nothing really changed.”
The uncertainty isn’t limited to travel arrangements. South Africa last played in Pakistan in October 2007. The only members of their touring party who have experienced the conditions are head coach Mark Boucher and bowling coach Charl Langeveldt, and only Boucher has played Tests there.
“When you go to places like Australia and India you kind of know what you’re going to get,” De Kock said. “But the unknowing of the things that are going to happen here is a big part of the challenge.” He also said something that won’t go unnoticed across Pakistan’s eastern border: “When we’ve played on Asian pitches in the past they’ve targetted this team specifically and they’ve prepared dustbowls. It made for an uneven contest. But it is what it is. I have scored some runs when they wickets have been decent.”
De Kock averages 56.20 in Australia, 52.50 in New Zealand, 42.54 at home, and only 26.00 in India – because, some South Africans will say, before Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami turned themselves into two of the best fast bowlers in the game the Indians used their groundskeepers to nullify opponents like South Africa’s pace attacks.
The time for theorising of all kinds will end on January 26, when the Karachi Test starts. For De Kock, that day can’t come soon enough: “We all knew about the nerves about coming here. Now it’s a reality.”