With the squads for the third and fourth Tests set to be announced today, we take a look at someone still hopeful of a call up. This is what MARK SALTER had to say on Stephen Cook’s Proteas dream, featured in the latest edition of SA Cricket magazine.
It’s all about timing in cricket. It’s the difference between a soaring six and holing out at long-on. It’s all about making the Test team or battling for recognition in the franchises. Is that why Stephen Cook is still uncapped?
It seems a long time since he first burst into the limelight with a South African first-class record score of 390 as an opener back in 2009, in a season when he felt he was playing the best cricket of his life, nine years after his first-class debut. He scored 1 013 runs in that campaign, but even then was not top run-scorer, trailing Rilee Rossouw (1 189) and Dean Elgar (1 060). His reward for that flamboyant season was a trip to Sri Lanka with South Africa A.
And while he didn’t set the scene alight in the same way over the next five years, he was never out of the top 10 run-scorers. In the meantime, Ashwell Prince and Alviro Petersen were embedded in the Proteas as first-choice partners to the immovable Graeme Smith after the retirement of Neil McKenzie. What irony … Cook opened the batting with Smith at KES.
It was all about timing.
But as the Proteas once again examine their opening options, Cook resurfaced in spectacular fashion in his first year as captain of the Highveld Lions last season, scoring five hundreds to top the run-scoring charts with 889 runs, averaging 63.5, winning the Sunfoil Series Cricketer of the Season award and securing the Lions their first series title since 1999-00, when the name ‘Gauteng’ was engraved on the trophy.
Interestingly, and more pertinently for the national selectors, Cook was the only opener in the top five last season. Omphile Ramela, ranked No 5, played a couple of games for the Cobras as an opener, but was mostly at three. Divan van Wyk of the Dolphins was the next best specialist opener, ranked eighth with 651 runs at an average of 36.2
The words ‘Cook’ and ‘Champion’ bring back vivid memories of his father, one SJ ‘Jimmy’ Cook, the languidly elegant opener of the Transvaal ‘Mean Machine’ under Clive Rice. He, too, was a man out of place and out of time, although for radically different reasons. At least at the age of 39 he had the honour of facing the first ball for the ‘free’ South Africa in a home Test, against India, and gaining another two caps before being unceremoniously and unjustifiably discarded.
He also had the privilege of playing in a time, because of isolation, when provincial cricket was revered; long before the paying public became saturated with digital sport and lost interest in their traditional heritage.
‘Yes, I remember watching my Dad play, from the grass banks of the Wanderers,’ Stephen mused. ‘And I remember him telling me: “Stephen, you made your debut in front of 15 people; I made my debut in front of 15 000”.’
But while Cook senior continues to provide the inspiration for his son’s driving ambition to play for his country, Cook junior holds one unenviable record: No other franchise player has ever scored as many runs and not received a national call-up.
‘The hope of playing for South Africa is the reason I get up in the morning, why I work at it, why I constantly strive to be better, to score more runs and to keep knocking at the door. I’m 33; I wouldn’t be the first guy to get a call-up at that age,’ he said. ‘If I continue to score runs and keep up the pressure, perhaps that dream will be realised.’
So now he has to turn his attention to doing just that with the Lions as they prepare to defend the hard-earned title which once seemed to be the sole preserve of that province.
‘I’d like to think we can do it again. I’d like to think we have created a culture of excellence in four-day cricket and put in these performances year in and year out. But we will have to do it under very different circumstances and with a different bunch of guys. That [2014-15] team was a special one. We were blessed with a serious bowling attack: to get three guys bowling at over 140km/h in one unit is unheard of in franchise cricket and it held us in good stead. And we had four or five batsmen who had played Test cricket or were averaging over 40, so it was really a strong bunch of guys.’
But Chris Morris has moved on to the Titans, and the Lions are unlikely to see much of Kagiso Rabada over the coming months. Quinton de Kock, too, has crossed the Jukskei and Neil McKenzie has retired. That is a massive loss in talent and experience for any team.
The word consistency hangs heavy over Cook, knowing that the burden is on him to replicate last season’s effort, both as an individual and contributor to the team. What brought about that change of fortune and the prolific run which brought five glorious hundreds?
‘I’m not sure. I didn’t change anything in the way of technique; there were just a few tweaks now and then, as you do as the season progresses.
‘Perhaps it was a change of mind-set. The first of those five hundreds came just when my baby was due. I scored 147 [against the Cobras] and then retired overnight to be with Laura and see my daughter [Elianna Grace] being born. The others came on minimal sleep and a strange new lifestyle.
‘I’m not sure if that is a recipe for success, but having your mind on other things perhaps helped me relax. I don’t think I hit a ball between games.
‘Having the captaincy was certainly a factor, because I wanted the guys to do well and show that we can stand up and be counted; I wanted to show that the team came first and success as an individual was secondary.’
Can it be done in the sterile atmosphere that is four-day cricket?
‘Of course it can. Yes, I would love people to come and watch like in the old days; not just family and friends and a few hardened fans. But it’s still tough cricket. Our domestic first-class cricket is a high standard, hard-fought, strength vs strength. It’s one of the reasons why our Test side has been so successful over the years. When guys like Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Kyle Abbott go out and take three, four, five wickets, it’s because they cut their teeth bowling to guys like Neil McKenzie and many other top batsmen. That’s the motivation.’
That, and the dream of the highest honour.