Cook: Life may begin at 33

Stephen Cook (Gallo Images)
Stephen Cook (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Where has he been all this time?

That was almost inevitably a prominent sentiment among commentators - particularly visiting British - and on social media as Stephen Cook marked his Test debut for South Africa on Friday with a patient, cool-headed century in the fourth and final encounter with England at SuperSport Park.

The 33-year-old looked consummately at home for the vast majority of his five-hours-and-twenty-minutes vigil for 115, leaving the overpowering thought: how much potentially productive game time for his country might have been wasted for 10 years or more?

Of course there is no conclusive answer ... and in fairness to various SA selection panels, there have been periods when players as worthy or more so (former KES schoolmate Graeme Smith comes to mind) have dominated the opening berths for the Proteas.

But if the old cliché of “better late than never” retains its validity, then at least Cook - who shares with his illustrious father Jimmy that trademark economy of upper body as much as various principles and techniques required for taking strike up front - is finally up and running in the five-day fray.

As another former international opening batsman, Kepler Wessels, noted behind a SuperSport microphone during play on Friday, Cook has already made himself a dead certainty, even if his second innings at Centurion were to misfire, for the next Test series against visitors New Zealand in the early spring.

In short, he looked every bit the top-end specialist South Africa have been craving as Dean Elgar’s partner ... and Cook even provided some observers with throwbacks in style terms to a different era when determined orthodoxy was a more widespread hallmark to the art of repelling a new ball.

England captain of the 1990s Mike Atherton said: “He is quite old-fashioned, the way he goes back and across, using the crease to work the ball to leg.”

So what might the future suddenly hold for a player who had uncomplainingly gone about his business at provincial or franchise level for a decade and a half without any prior national recognition?

Well, Cook seems level-headed enough to know, for starters, that just because he has become the sixth South African to crack a ton on first Test appearance - and oldest by some way, with a four-year gap on Alviro Petersen - it doesn’t mean he now has an automatic ticket to a Proteas spot for the rest of his playing days.

Yet he has provided as big a “notice me” statement as you could wish for on maiden outing, and for those fearing he may only have two years or so to prosper in the game’s most prestigious format before the ravages of Father Time begin to take a noticeable toll, they may find comfort in the top-flight longevity of certain cricketers.

It is not written in stone, for instance, that batsmen will or must wither and grudgingly bow out in their mid-30s.

Only a few months ago, in October, Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq registered a century against the very same England in Dubai, aged a ripe old 41.

In 2014, that crabby-styled West Indian left-hander Shivnarine Chanderpaul got one at 40.

So those are modern examples of very durable batsmen, even if circumstances were vastly different some 87 years ago when Jack Hobbs, then 46, plundered a hundred for England against the old enemy Australia at Melbourne in 1929 – he remains oldest recorded player to perform the feat.

Cook is highly unlikely to play Test cricket until even close to such an extraordinarily advanced age.

But with a bit of luck, and aided by his obvious devotion to sound fitness and lightness of foot, he might have the opportunity to knuckle down for the Proteas for several years.

An additional statistical fillip he may wish to digest is that when South Africa played their first home Test series of the post-isolation era in 1992, they handed debuts to a 40-year-old Omar Henry and Cook’s “Mean Machine” icon father of 39 at the time.

Jimmy Cook’s best years were certainly behind him by then and his SA presence was regrettably fleeting, but it is at least a genetic indication, perhaps, that if you are from that particular family you are still able to play the great game with a good deal of decency into your 40th year.

Peter Kirsten was some six years Stephen Cook’s senior at 39 when that standout batsman of the wilderness years pleasingly earned a late-career ton at Headingley in 1994, whilst few will forget Pat Symcox’s famous tail-end three-figure score against Pakistan at the Wanderers in 1998; the specialist off-spinner was 37.

Cook is also more than two years the junior of Australia’s Adam Voges, who was 35 and 243 days old last year when, against West Indies in Dominica, he became the oldest batsman to score a century on debut.

No guarantees ... but the Lions favourite may be around for a while, and able to meaningfully assist South Africa’s quest to claw back to the top of the global rankings after the recent indelicate tumble.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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