Cape Town - Where has he been all this
That was almost inevitably a prominent
sentiment among commentators - particularly visiting British - and on social
media as Stephen Cook marked his Test debut for South Africa on Friday with a
patient, cool-headed century in the fourth and final encounter with England at
The 33-year-old looked consummately at home
for the vast majority of his five-hours-and-twenty-minutes vigil for 115,
leaving the overpowering thought: how much potentially productive game time for
his country might have been wasted for 10 years or more?
Of course there is no conclusive answer ...
and in fairness to various SA selection panels, there have been periods when
players as worthy or more so (former KES schoolmate Graeme Smith comes to mind)
have dominated the opening berths for the Proteas.
But if the old cliché of “better late than
never” retains its validity, then at least Cook - who shares with his
illustrious father Jimmy that trademark economy of upper body as much as
various principles and techniques required for taking strike up front - is
finally up and running in the five-day fray.
As another former international opening
batsman, Kepler Wessels, noted behind a SuperSport microphone during play on
Friday, Cook has already made himself a dead certainty, even if his second
innings at Centurion were to misfire, for the next Test series against visitors
New Zealand in the early spring.
In short, he looked every bit the top-end
specialist South Africa have been craving as Dean Elgar’s partner ... and Cook
even provided some observers with throwbacks in style terms to a different era
when determined orthodoxy was a more widespread hallmark to the art of
repelling a new ball.
England captain of the 1990s Mike Atherton
said: “He is quite old-fashioned, the way he goes back and across, using the
crease to work the ball to leg.”
So what might the future suddenly hold for
a player who had uncomplainingly gone about his business at provincial or
franchise level for a decade and a half without any prior national recognition?
Well, Cook seems level-headed enough to
know, for starters, that just because he has become the sixth South African to
crack a ton on first Test appearance - and oldest by some way, with a four-year
gap on Alviro Petersen - it doesn’t mean he now has an automatic ticket to a
Proteas spot for the rest of his playing days.
Yet he has provided as big a “notice me”
statement as you could wish for on maiden outing, and for those fearing he may
only have two years or so to prosper in the game’s most prestigious format
before the ravages of Father Time begin to take a noticeable toll, they may
find comfort in the top-flight longevity of certain cricketers.
It is not written in stone, for instance,
that batsmen will or must wither and grudgingly bow out in their mid-30s.
Only a few months ago, in October,
Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq registered a century against the very same England in
Dubai, aged a ripe old 41.
In 2014, that crabby-styled West Indian
left-hander Shivnarine Chanderpaul got one at 40.
So those are modern examples of very
durable batsmen, even if circumstances were vastly different some 87 years ago
when Jack Hobbs, then 46, plundered a hundred for England against the old enemy
Australia at Melbourne in 1929 – he remains oldest recorded player to perform
Cook is highly unlikely to play Test
cricket until even close to such an extraordinarily advanced age.
But with a bit of luck, and aided by his
obvious devotion to sound fitness and lightness of foot, he might have the
opportunity to knuckle down for the Proteas for several years.
An additional statistical fillip he may
wish to digest is that when South Africa played their first home Test series of
the post-isolation era in 1992, they handed debuts to a 40-year-old Omar Henry
and Cook’s “Mean Machine” icon father of 39 at the time.
Jimmy Cook’s best years were certainly
behind him by then and his SA presence was regrettably fleeting, but it is at
least a genetic indication, perhaps, that if you are from that particular
family you are still able to play the great game with a good deal of decency into
your 40th year.
Peter Kirsten was some six years Stephen
Cook’s senior at 39 when that standout batsman of the wilderness years
pleasingly earned a late-career ton at Headingley in 1994, whilst few will
forget Pat Symcox’s famous tail-end three-figure score against Pakistan at the
Wanderers in 1998; the specialist off-spinner was 37.
Cook is also more than two years the junior
of Australia’s Adam Voges, who was 35 and 243 days old last year when, against
West Indies in Dominica, he became the oldest batsman to score a century on
No guarantees ... but the Lions favourite
may be around for a while, and able to meaningfully assist South Africa’s quest
to claw back to the top of the global rankings after the recent indelicate
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing