Cape Town – You might say Stiaan van Zyl signed off in style.
Although he is expected back for the Cape Cobras in franchise cricket in 2017/18, there was a certain symbolism to the left-handed batsman ending his first-class season last weekend with successive centuries (108 and 101 not out) in the closing round of the Sunfoil Series against the Dolphins at Kingsmead.
The twin performance at the crease in Durban closely followed a second-innings ton in the previous round against the Knights at Paarl (106), so when he starts his County Championship career at Hove in a couple of months’ time, he will doubtless have the possibility of a fourth on the trot pretty close to front of mind.
Not that he would be particularly close even then to the all-time record for most consecutive first-class centuries – six, held by three batsmen (one a certain Donald Bradman) including a compatriot in the shape of Durban-born Mike Procter, albeit for then-Rhodesia at the time.
But his late-season purple patch also served as a sharp reminder of what the Proteas are potentially sacrificing – particularly in broader Test squad depth terms, as things stand – over the next three years.
Van Zyl recently signed a Kolpak contract with Sussex, making him ineligible for further involvement with the national side until at least the end of 2019.
Some might interpret that as closure to his Test activity after 12 on-and-off caps and 395 runs at 26.33.
But remember that Van Zyl is only 29, so will be around 32 by the time he could become eligible again for the Proteas.
When you consider that Stephen Cook only made his SA debut aged 33, and successfully so, it raises at least the good possibility that the Cobras stalwart, educated at cricket-unfashionable Boland Landbou, could yet add to his dozen appearances.
Similarly, Mike Hussey only started out in Test cricket aged 30, and went on to plunder more than 6,000 runs at an average of above 50 for Australia.
There is a widespread, frankly understandable belief that Van Zyl has been reasonably hard done by when it comes to Test duty: he loves the No 3 berth (that’s significantly where he made all three of those recent Sunfoil Series centuries from) but played most of his Proteas matches either as an experimental opening batsman or in slots rather lower in the order like six or seven.
His Tests upfront came primarily in the controversial away series against India in 2015/16, when even blue-chip specialist batsmen from both sides struggled on ill-prepared, dustbowl tracks.
Nor is Van Zyl, with his penchant for building a knock patiently and stoically, especially suited to playing “push-it-on” innings from too deep in the order, so he has never really represented his country in most favoured roles.
My own view is that Van Zyl, if he does recommit to the SA international cause in late 2019, may yet become an appealing contender for the coveted No 3 position in the Proteas’ order.
By then, its wonderful incumbent Hashim Amla, who turns 34 next month, will be at an especially advanced age and may well have stepped off the wearying treadmill of international competition.
Van Zyl has the sort of technique and necessary patience to be able to prosper in that role, even if he will know that he runs the risk of younger, more routinely SA-eligible players sticking up their hands in the interim as longer-term successors to Amla.
In his favour, though, will be that prolonged exposure to the unique demands of English conditions will probably help to generally make him an ever better, wiser customer than before.
It is no coincidence that Van Zyl, following a humdrum sort of season initially, finished the Sunfoil Series with great gusto after the Cobras resolved their complex, much-publicised “internal” issues by appointing Ashwell Prince as head coach.
Significantly, too, the very Prince, a straight-talking and strong-willed former Proteas Test regular, gave fulsome praise to Van Zyl after the Cobras had ended the four-day competition immensely better than they started it.
In a Cobras media release a few days ago, the fellow left-hander enthused: “It is an enormous pity that Stiaan will be remembered for his failure as a South African opener in India where, frankly, all the other SA batsmen and Indian stars also did not get runs.
“I would rather remember him for the century he scored on Test debut.
“I played 66 Tests for South Africa, and I would rather have paid money to see Stiaan bat than to see myself do so. (He) has the credentials to play international cricket … anywhere in the world.”
That is high praise indeed from a proven tough nut of the Test arena.
Hopefully the Stiaan van Zyl Test saga isn’t necessarily a locked and bolted one …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing