TELFORD VICE, Hobart
THAT Stephen Cook is the most polite man in South Africa’s test squad was a notion challenged only when Keshav Maharaj cracked the nod for the tour to Australia.
Now Maharaj has surpassed Cook in an area more central to the success of South Africa’s mission Down Under: scoring runs.
After five innings in Australia Cook has 29 runs to his name, 12 of them from his two innings in the first test at the WACA.
Maharaj has had one fewer innings than Cook but he has scored almost eight times as many runs.
Among his total of 93 were contributions of 16 and 41 not out in Perth.
There are, of course, mitigating circumstances.
As an opener Cook has to face the bowlers at their freshest, armed with a new ball and – if South Africa bat first, like they did at the WACA – when the pitch is at its liveliest.
Maharaj batted at No. 9 in the first test and never had to face a new or even a newish ball.
He came to the crease in the 53rd over in the first innings and, in the second dig, when the ball was 66 overs old.
Cook had to contend with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Peter Siddle. Maharaj was able to score his runs off the distinctly lesser Mitchell Marsh, Nathan Lyon, Adam Voges and Steve Smith.
But opening the batting successfully is measured in more than runs.
In the second innings at the WACA Cook survived for 73 minutes and faced 55 deliveries – a significant improvement on the two minutes and four balls that comprised his first innings.
And it helps being a nice guy. People tend to want to have you around. People like your opening partner.
“I’ve known ‘Cookie’ for a very long time; I’ve played a lot of cricket against him and with him, for the A side,” Dean Elgar said on Thursday.
“I’m sure if I was in that position I’d be a bit frustrated because as a player in this environment you want to make a contribution.
“And I know that a guy who’s just started his international career wants to make a big play for South Africa.
“Everybody shares his frustrations. That’s just human nature. As his opening partner I am frustrated on his behalf.
“Hopefully he can feed off the good form of us winning the first test and make a big play for us in the second test.”
Besides, it’s not as if South Africa have a readymade replacement sitting in the dressingroom.
But they could deploy Rilee Rossouw in the role, if only not to squander he form that helped him score two half-centuries and a century in five one-day internationals against Australia in South Africa last month.
Elgar didn’t think much of that idea: “Rilee is a player of a different dynamic – more of a middle order player and not really an opening batsman.
“His role is a lot different to ‘Cookie’. He will bring in another dynamic of aggression; that’s the way he approaches his cricket.
“I don’t think Rilee is going to be needed just yet.”
Another option would be to drop Cook, promote Quinton de Kock to the top of the order and install Rossouw at No. 7.
But asking De Kock to open the batting as well as keep wicket could be asking too much, even for a player of his gifts and age.
Cook’s challenge would appear to be technical: he is splaying his front foot when he strides forward to the pitch of the ball and is thus squared up when it arrives, which makes him play down the wrong line.
Technical issues become mental, especially for positions as specialist as opening the batting.
Cook and another nice guy, batting consultant Neil McKenzie, need to stop the problem from making that leap.