TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg
IT’S the opening pair, stupid. Somehow, it’s taken the suits 736 balls and 1015 minutes to realise that.
That’s how many deliveries Stephen Cook has faced and how much time he has spent at the crease for the Lions in first-class matches this season – in which he has scored 415 runs, among them two centuries and a half-century, in six innings for an average of 83.00. Last season, he was the competition’s leading runscorer.
After weeks of public and press clamour for Cook to be added to SA’s test squad, who have lost five of their last nine matches, failures in which their top order batting has been shambolic, that happened on Monday. Finally.
“There’s been a lot of talk and sometimes it creeps into your head, ‘Is this ever going to happen?’,” Cook said.
Some of that talk has centered on the gap in standards between the franchise and international levels. But the promising debuts made by Chris Morris and Hardus Viljoen against England suggest otherwise. Then again Morris and Viljoen are primarily bowlers …
“There’s more opportunity to come back as bowler,” Cook said. “You could go for 30 in your first over and then take a hattrick. As a batsman you could be out first ball.”
The six SA batsmen England’s Stuart Broad dismissed for 17 runs in the third test at the Wanderers on Saturday will understand Cook’s point perfectly.
Cook himself was “toiling in the field (for the Lions against the Knights in Kimberley) while that was happening”. Which is probably no bad thing.
But how did he feel about tangling with Broad in the fourth test at Centurion, which starts on Friday?
“In those conditions, the Wanderers is one of the toughest places to bat in the world,” Cook said. “Centurion is a good cricket wicket.”
England clinched the series with their seven-wicket win in three days at the Wanderers. SA have not won a test in more than a year and will lose their No. 1 position when the rankings are next revised.
Cook, then, is about to step into a dark cloud of a dressingroom. Will he bring a silver lining?
“I’ve sat in many team meetings where we’ve needed to turn things around; not long ago the Lions were last in all three competitions (in 2013-14),” Cook said.
“You next game is your opportunity to do that. That’s what I’ll bring. It may be an overly positive message but it’s also the truth.”
In SA’s last nine tests, their openers have been separated for fewer than 10 runs six times in 14 innings, and they have posted just three 50 partnerships.
The openers have scored 340 runs in those 14 innings – or 75 runs fewer than Cook despite him having had eight fewer opportunities.
For all that, one half of the equation is working fine. Dean Elgar averages 39.58 in those 14 innings. Only twice has he been out in the single figures, and only three times has he spent less than an hour at the crease.
It’s at the other end of the pitch where the alarm bells have been ringing unheeded too loudly for too long.
Stiaan van Zyl has accompanied Elgar to the middle 11 times. He has been first out 10 times, averages 15.60, has been out for fewer than 10 five times, and has batted for an hour or more just twice.
This is not his fault: he is a No. 3, not an opening batsman. Cook is an opening batsman. Yet Van Zyl keeps being sent out there.
Until now. But let’s not give the suits too much credit: Cook is as yet only in the squad, not the XI.