Ed Cowan proves he belongs
Ed Cowan is on Australia's $50 note. Ed-ith Cowan, that is. Edward Cowan, as his parents still call him, might not have risen to such eminence as the first woman elected to an Australian parliament, but his currency gained significant value on the fourth day at the Gabba. His maiden Test century, an innings of 136 against the world's best attack, and one which only ended via an unfortunate run-out while backing up, has proven that he belongs at Test level. And that he'll stay there for some time.
Cowan's standing in Australia's Test plans was apparent when he missed out on a central contract in June. Perhaps it was intended as motivation - if he played three Tests he would be automatically upgraded to a contract - but Cowan is not the kind of man who required extra incentive. Really, it was nothing more complicated than an accurate reflection of his status; in his first seven Tests he had done enough to hold his place in the side, but that was all.
The challenge was for Cowan to show that he could be a viable long-term Test opener, not just a compiler of first-class runs. He has now done that. For 388 minutes at the Gabba, Cowan staved off Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Rory Kleinveldt, and if a man can survive for long periods against such a group, he is unquestionably of Test class. Notably, Cowan not only survived, he flourished.
In the lead-up to this Test, Cowan spoke of his desire to bat with more intent than he did last summer. On debut on Boxing Day last year, Cowan made 14 runs in his first session of Test cricket. He went on to make 68 in nearly five hours at the crease. For a man trying to grasp his one chance at Test cricket, such an approach was understandable. But he entered this season with a different attitude.
It was a simple plan hatched with the batting coach, Justin Langer. Before Australia's final Test in the Caribbean in April, Cowan spoke to Langer about the best approach for a Test opener. The advice, from a supremely-qualified mentor who balanced defensive ability with stroke-making, was to "go out and play your shots". Cowan did so in that last innings in Dominica, scoring 55 at a reasonable rate on a tricky surface.
"I thought at the time that's a pretty good blueprint, because it's felt that in Test cricket more so than in domestic cricket, if you're standing still, you're a sitting duck," Cowan said after scoring his maiden Test hundred. "I'm playing my best when I'm positive and have a good defence, rather than the other way around. I felt like I backed that up."
Cowan knows his own game inside out, as you'd expect of a man with more than 5000 first-class runs. And Cowan certainly put it to good use at the Gabba. True, the pitch was not offering much assistance to Steyn and Co, but they were dangerous enough to leave Australia at 3 for 40 on the third afternoon. Cowan watched deliveries closely, leaving those that had teased David Warner and Ricky Ponting into edges, and put away those that were available.
His willingness to pull and hook South Africa's fast bowlers, and the way those shots flew off the middle of the bat, was notable. The short ball held no fears. His cover-driving was exquisite, his footwork, like everything else about his game, was balanced. For a Test opener, that's the key word. It is something his opening partner, Warner, has yet to master, despite showing signs of such judgment with his patient century against New Zealand in Hobart last season.
Cowan also showed plenty of mental toughness. He started the final over before lunch on 98 and despite one hastily aborted single, didn't do anything risky in pushing for triple figures before the break. Such delays can affect batsmen differently. Last year at the Gabba, Clarke went to lunch on 99 against New Zealand and calmly completed his ton upon the resumption. Three years ago against Pakistan at the MCG, Shane Watson was on 98 at lunch and brought up his hundred only after nervously sending a ball to point, where a simple catch was put down.
Cowan's nerves did not betray him. He brought up his hundred by pulling Vernon Philander confidently and his joy was obvious. There was a skip, a jump, a big smile and a raise of the bat to the crowd, and in particular to his wife, Virginia, and baby daughter Romy. There was also a look to the heavens, which Cowan later said was a nod to Peter Roebuck, his former coach and mentor, who died a year ago to the day.
"I'm well aware of the date. I had a conversation with my wife this morning on an earlier than normal walk because I couldn't really sleep," Cowan said. "It was this day last year as well that started last season for me, having found out the news that he'd died. I was battling a little bit and that kick-started me. I was well aware of the date. That was why I looked skywards upon getting a hundred. He was a coach and a mentor and someone whose advice I valued dearly."
Roebuck would have enjoyed writing about Cowan's hundred. Every spectator at the Gabba certainly enjoyed watching it.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here