TELFORD VICE, Centurion
JIMMY Cook sent a long, lean look out of a corporate box in Centurion’s upper deck on Friday. It was the same sort of look he once aimed down the pitch at approaching bowlers. Flinty, focused, and full of things unsaid.
This time, he was looking at the scoreboard on the first day of the fourth test between SA and England.
“Cook” the board glowed in orange letters, “74*”
Stephen Cook, that is, Jimmy’s son, who made his debut having spent most of the summer swinging an axe at the selectors’ door. Only once England had won the series, not least because of SA’s shaky top order batting, was he allowed in.
Jimmy knew how Stephen felt out there in the crowded loneliness of making your test debut. Well, he did and he didn’t. A fine batsman in SA and on the county circuit, most of Jimmy’s light was hidden under the bushel of apartheid.
When he finally played test cricket, aged 39, against India at Kingsmead in November 1992, he became the first debutant to be dismissed with the first delivery of a match at that level – caught at second slip by Sachin Tendulkar off Kapil Dev, although the ball looked suspiciously like it had bounced before Tendulkar snapped it up.
That was also the first ball of test cricket in a match involving SA for 22 years.
“I said to (Stephen), ‘You haven’t got much to beat here, boy,” Jimmy said. “You’ve only got to last two balls and then you’ll be fine’.”
Perhaps the sheer size of the moment of Jimmy’s debut, and the hardness he needed to keep playing through the isolation years, helped prepare him for what, for others, would have been a torrent of emotions.
He was supposed to travel to Dubai on Wednesday for a short coaching stint with his other son, Ryan, but …
“(Ryan) said you’d better stay here, you don’t go. I said we had already made the commitment and it’s quite a big weekend so we need to go.
“So he said think about it and then I thought about it and thought I’d love to be here but I’ve made the commitment, and then Ryan told me he had cancelled my ticket. So I can’t go anyway.”
With that, Jimmy took another long, lean look at the scoreboard. “Cook” was still “74*”
Years ago, Jimmy would watch his son share a pitch with another name that would be writ large in scoreboard lights.
“Graeme (Smith) was always better than Stephen. They used to open together (for King Edward VII School) and Graeme was the strong, bang, bang, bang guy who used to hit fours.
“Stephen was the technical, smaller guy. But he grew and got stronger as he went on. As a youngster, he was not about blasting fours all over the place. He was take a single there, take a single here – ok bad ball, I’ll put it away for four.”
Not a lot has changed. Stephen still gathers his runs with the same good manners he treats all who bid him good morning.
“He’s always been a nice kid. I can’t even tell you any stories. He has always kept his nose clean and never had any controversy around him.
“I think I gave him one smack in his whole life. I said something and he stuck his tongue out at me and I gave him a clip across the ear. And after that, nothing.”
That’s what dad thinks.
Stephen has watched Smith and a host of others be given their chance. Now, at 33, he has been given his.
“He never thought the door was closed,” Jimmy said. “He always said, ‘I am going to play SA; I am telling you’.
“I said, ‘You’re getting on a bit’. He said, ‘I am going to play – I’m going to make so many runs they will have to pick me’.
“I told him maybe he should go overseas. He said no because he wanted to play SA.”
And so Stephen Cook has. If you take a long, lean look at him you will see him sticking his tongue out at the world. On the inside, anyway.