Stephen Cook will be a key player for a Proteas side building towards several big series in 2017.
There’s a new confidence and air about this Proteas team. Following convincing series wins against New Zealand and Australia, it’s fair to say that South Africa have re-established themselves as a Test cricket force.
That’s not to say that they’re the finished article. Indeed, Faf du Plessis admitted as much in the wake of South Africa’s 206-run win over Sri Lanka in Port Elizabeth. The Proteas captain’s statement summed up the attitude of a group that realises it can and should improve over the next few months.
Many will be looking forward to the moment when AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, and Morne Morkel are fit enough to rejoin the starting XI. Incredibly, the absence of these world-class performers, as well as Hashim Amla’s struggle for form, has not impacted negatively on the Proteas’ results.
The team has fought hard over the past six months. That fighting spirit has brought them success in the form of series victories. The characteristic that defines the current team is the characteristic that was lacking in the series against India and England not too long ago.
This is especially true of the top and middle order. A year ago, batsmen with an appetite for hard graft were in short supply.
Nowadays, the Proteas boast two determined specimens in Cook and Dean Elgar. The openers clubbed together for partnerships of 104 and 116 in the recent Test against Sri Lanka in Port Elizabeth.
Cook will be 35 in November. Some have questioned the wisdom of backing a player who is approaching the end of his professional career.
What is not up for debate is whether Cook belongs in the side in the short term. Since making his Test debut against England last January, he has scored three centuries and two fifties and achieved an average of 47.
Those numbers make a strong argument for his inclusion. His recent performances alongside Elgar give one reason to believe that the Proteas have found the solution to their opening woes; and not a moment too soon.
The Proteas will face greater challenges over the next year or so. Following the series against Sri Lanka, South Africa will tour New Zealand in February and England in May. Down the line, they will tackle India and Australia at home.
There’s an opportunity to build on the recent successes against New Zealand and Australia with another series victory over Sri Lanka. Given what transpired at St George’s Park, as well as the Proteas’ admission that they were not at their best, one would expect South Africa to go on and win the remaining Tests.
Many of the players, however, should have one eye on the series that follow. In the context of the 2017 season as a whole, the coaches and selectors should be pushing Cook and Elgar to strengthen that partnership before South Africa comes up against better bowling attacks, and before they are thrust into more demanding game situations.
Cook has made an encouraging start to his Test career and deserves an extended run. The opener will be a key player for South Africa in 2017. It’s vital that he continues to improve ahead of the series against quality opposition.