Cape Town – Is there a further twist to the unpredictable
tale of Stephen Cook?
That thought just comes to light in the wake of his
first-innings century for South Africa ‘A’ in their ongoing first unofficial
Test against Indian counterparts in Pretoria.
Naturally it is massively tempting to venture that, given
his disadvantageous age of 34, the specialist opening batsman’s top-flight Test
days aren’t going to be resurrected.
Cook didn’t make the cut for the tour of England – though his
advocates might suggest now that it was a good one to miss, considering the
Proteas’ collective pain and special woes at the top of the order – after a
glaringly underwhelming personal performance on the prior visit to New Zealand.
As if to confirm that seaming pitches and chilly climes
aren’t his forte, the Johannesburg-born veteran then also battled to make an
impression in a stint with Durham (they of the often frigid north-east base) in
the County Championship, where seven matches saw him register only 348 runs at
Significantly, however, he is quickly flourishing anew back
in beloved Highveld (and South African generally) conditions, after being a
debatable inclusion in the SA ‘A’ side considering that it is more normally
associated with the development of younger talent.
I didn’t back his call-up, primarily on those grounds, but
the South African second-stringers had also had a rough time of it in England
recently, and the selectors clearly felt that some steely first-class
experience might benefit the team and help hike its results.
Typically of a self-motivated cricketer who knows his
limitations but also plays shrewdly to his strengths, however, Cook responded
with what appears on paper to have been a trademark measured, patient-vigil 120
off 252 balls against India ‘A’.
He made a further 32 in the second knock, and there was a
timely, pleasing aspect to the fact that he and considerably younger skipper
Aiden Markram posted half-century opening stands (57 and 66) in each knock.
It follows the miserable failure of the Proteas, and more
specifically the grim time suffered by Heino Kuhn, to amass a first-wicket
stand better than 21 throughout the four-Test series defeat to England.
Markram, 22, is clearly making an increasingly powerful case
for a Test debut, and it is quite likely to occur when Bangladesh visit for two
Tests from the end of September.
He scored 22 and 79 himself against India ‘A’ – and the
South Africans were turning the screws encouragingly on the contest at the time
It is appropriate that he is, almost certainly, considered
next cab off the rank for a Test crack, with luckless Kuhn expected to be axed
after his English troubles (average 14).
But there are also no guarantees yet that Markram will, in
fact, nail down the problematic “number two” berth to Dean Elgar as his own,
and there is always the possibility of injury or illness to incumbents.
Against that backdrop, and at the very least, I would expect
Cook – yes, ungainly, crabby, textbook-challenged in certain shot-play and all
-- to remain hovering determinedly.
He is just that kind of customer.
Apart from his inbuilt resolve, he has probably developed an
even tougher skin over the years considering the patience required to earn his
Test honours in the first place: he eventually earned the nod at age 33 and
became just the sixth South African to manage a century on debut – against
England at Centurion in the 2015/16 home series.
Cook went on to notch two further tons within his first
seven Test matches -- an illuminating strike rate on that front -- firmly
suggesting that he was in it for a long haul.
His “crime” subsequently has been four admittedly downright poor
Tests, two at home to Sri Lanka and a further duo in New Zealand.
So is he spent at the premier level?
Yes, I’d more purposefully submit, if Markram glues himself in
compellingly during the busy 2017/18 season which also involves major home
series against India and Australia.
But if not, then the thought of Cook fighting his way back
into the mix simply can’t be dismissed as wholly loony.
To be blunt, there isn’t exactly a barrel-load of raw
talent, Markram apart, to suggest that necessary stability at the front of the
order by the Proteas is just around the corner.
Cook is quite capable of being a leading light in the
Sunfoil Series, as well as prospering further in the current mini-series
against India ‘A’.
Might there also be a case for adopting a horses-for-courses
approach with him?
If pitches are either slow and flat or pacey yet gun-barrel
straight – and there are a few of those scattered across South Africa and other
countries – then someone with Cook’s fortitude and durability potentially still
comes in very handy indeed.
Stephen Cook an 11-capper at the close of his Test career?
Don’t stake your house on it quite yet.
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