Cook: The cricketer who won’t go away

Stephen Cook (Getty Images)
Stephen Cook (Getty Images)

Cape Town – Is there a further twist to the unpredictable tale of Stephen Cook?

That thought just comes to light in the wake of his first-innings century for South Africa ‘A’ in their ongoing first unofficial Test against Indian counterparts in Pretoria.

Naturally it is massively tempting to venture that, given his disadvantageous age of 34, the specialist opening batsman’s top-flight Test days aren’t going to be resurrected.

Cook didn’t make the cut for the tour of England – though his advocates might suggest now that it was a good one to miss, considering the Proteas’ collective pain and special woes at the top of the order – after a glaringly underwhelming personal performance on the prior visit to New Zealand.

As if to confirm that seaming pitches and chilly climes aren’t his forte, the Johannesburg-born veteran then also battled to make an impression in a stint with Durham (they of the often frigid north-east base) in the County Championship, where seven matches saw him register only 348 runs at 26.77.

Significantly, however, he is quickly flourishing anew back in beloved Highveld (and South African generally) conditions, after being a debatable inclusion in the SA ‘A’ side considering that it is more normally associated with the development of younger talent.

I didn’t back his call-up, primarily on those grounds, but the South African second-stringers had also had a rough time of it in England recently, and the selectors clearly felt that some steely first-class experience might benefit the team and help hike its results.

Typically of a self-motivated cricketer who knows his limitations but also plays shrewdly to his strengths, however, Cook responded with what appears on paper to have been a trademark measured, patient-vigil 120 off 252 balls against India ‘A’.

He made a further 32 in the second knock, and there was a timely, pleasing aspect to the fact that he and considerably younger skipper Aiden Markram posted half-century opening stands (57 and 66) in each knock.

It follows the miserable failure of the Proteas, and more specifically the grim time suffered by Heino Kuhn, to amass a first-wicket stand better than 21 throughout the four-Test series defeat to England.

Markram, 22, is clearly making an increasingly powerful case for a Test debut, and it is quite likely to occur when Bangladesh visit for two Tests from the end of September.

He scored 22 and 79 himself against India ‘A’ – and the South Africans were turning the screws encouragingly on the contest at the time of writing.

It is appropriate that he is, almost certainly, considered next cab off the rank for a Test crack, with luckless Kuhn expected to be axed after his English troubles (average 14).

But there are also no guarantees yet that Markram will, in fact, nail down the problematic “number two” berth to Dean Elgar as his own, and there is always the possibility of injury or illness to incumbents.

Against that backdrop, and at the very least, I would expect Cook – yes, ungainly, crabby, textbook-challenged in certain shot-play and all -- to remain hovering determinedly.

He is just that kind of customer.

Apart from his inbuilt resolve, he has probably developed an even tougher skin over the years considering the patience required to earn his Test honours in the first place: he eventually earned the nod at age 33 and became just the sixth South African to manage a century on debut – against England at Centurion in the 2015/16 home series.

Cook went on to notch two further tons within his first seven Test matches -- an illuminating strike rate on that front -- firmly suggesting that he was in it for a long haul.

His “crime” subsequently has been four admittedly downright poor Tests, two at home to Sri Lanka and a further duo in New Zealand.

So is he spent at the premier level?

Yes, I’d more purposefully submit, if Markram glues himself in compellingly during the busy 2017/18 season which also involves major home series against India and Australia.

But if not, then the thought of Cook fighting his way back into the mix simply can’t be dismissed as wholly loony.

To be blunt, there isn’t exactly a barrel-load of raw talent, Markram apart, to suggest that necessary stability at the front of the order by the Proteas is just around the corner.

Cook is quite capable of being a leading light in the Sunfoil Series, as well as prospering further in the current mini-series against India ‘A’.

Might there also be a case for adopting a horses-for-courses approach with him?

If pitches are either slow and flat or pacey yet gun-barrel straight – and there are a few of those scattered across South Africa and other countries – then someone with Cook’s fortitude and durability potentially still comes in very handy indeed.

Stephen Cook an 11-capper at the close of his Test career?

Don’t stake your house on it quite yet.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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