Cape Town – Here we go … seven Test matches between now and August that could reveal whether Stephen Cook truly is the real deal as a Test opening batsman, or just a reasonably “passing fad”.
The Proteas imminently embark – Dunedin’s University Oval, Tuesday midnight (SA time) – on the first of three Tests against New Zealand, before their next obligations in the five-day arena, four contests against England also in their own environment from July.
Common denominator? The fair potential in each country for cool (or downright bracing), damp conditions that traditionally interest bowlers with the ability to nip it noticeably off the seam or generate challenging levels of swing.
Such scenarios may not come to pass, of course – the English series for the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy is played smack in mid-summer in the UK, and it could even be gloriously hot, and instead present sun-baked surfaces where batsmen come gloriously into their own.
But that’s far from guaranteed, and if you are thinking seam-friendly tracks under cloud cover, you would normally not look too much further than New Zealand and England for likelihood, would you?
In such landscapes, virtually all batsmen tend to find life notably challenging in the early periods of their innings, but more so those with techniques better suited to truer, harder and possibly also pacier pitches.
Cook has spent particularly generous chunks of his first-class career on ones with the latter characteristics, the Wanderers being his permanent home venue in franchise terms with the Lions.
Indeed, if you go to his “Major teams” category on his profile page on www.espncricinfo.com, his own list is an unusually lean one: South Africa, Gauteng, Lions, SA ‘A’.
Current Proteas opening partner Dean Elgar, just for example, has a rather more widely-travelled and world-wise look, as his career teams include “Gloucestershire 2nd XI, Nottinghamshire 2nd XI, Somerset and Surrey”.
That tells you he has a head start on Cook for experience of English conditions, and by extension should find the going just a tad more familiar than his SA colleague does in the Land of the Long White Cloud as well – even if the 32-cap left-hander also hasn’t yet tackled the Black Caps in their own lairs.
Both men are disadvantaged by the fact that they played no part in the one-day international series immediately preceding the Test portion in NZ, and the turnaround to the five-dayers is so fast that there has not even been time for a warm-up match for those who flew over solely for the long-form combat.
It puts them behind the other expected members of the top five in the batting line-up – Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and captain Faf du Plessis – for recent familiarity to the demands of playing in that country.
But it is Cook who, almost inevitably considering the quirkiness of his technique, will be subjected to the deeper scrutiny on the surfaces the Proteas are about to do battle on.
Although a ripe old 34, Cook famously made a late start to his Test career and after nine appearances (six on home turf) has amassed a promising 615 runs with three centuries at an average of 41.
It tells you he has “got something” even if technical purity is not -- and perhaps never will be -- it.
The other assuring hallmark of this dedicated, clearly self-motivated professional is that he fully realises what his strengths are, and acknowledges his more obvious shortcomings at the crease as well.
As recently as the victorious tour of Australia, he was candidly saying things like “I’ve never been a pretty cricketer” and “I know I crab across the crease”.
Those tendencies will, of course, be music to the ears of New Zealand pacemen like Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner, although you can’t cluck that you have disposed of the tenacious Cook until you have actually got him out.
His mental sturdiness is an ally that counter-acts his deficiencies in textbook terms, plus the veteran Gautenger has certain strong-point strokes that can gradually serve to demoralise the best of fast men seeking his scalp.
Yet Cook has really only played one Test innings thus far in conditions that could genuinely be described as chilly and moist – the 23 off 49 deliveries he registered against the Baggy Greens in a crushing, innings triumph in deepest Hobart earlier this season – and he will know as well as anyone else that the next few weeks or months are the toughest examination yet of how, as it were, a camel might survive in the Antarctic.
I, for one, am not going to recklessly bet on Stephen Craig Cook coming up short.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing