Cook omission raises doubts about domestic quality
Stephen Cook's continued omission from South Africa's Test plans, in spite of his consistent form in domestic cricket, has reawakened concerns about the quality of the Sunfoil Series, the country's first-class franchise competition, with the implication being that performances in A team matches are the only benchmark that the selectors can trust when it comes to promoting new players to the senior team.
Cook, 33, topped the first-class run-charts last season and opened this summer with an unbeaten 168 to help Lions beat Warriors by 203 runs in their first match at the Wanderers last week. However, he was overlooked for a maiden Test call-up this week, with the makeshift opener, Stiaan van Zyl, retaining his squad place for the final two matches of the England series.
Cook's age is considered one of the reasons for overlooking him. However, that does not fully explain why South Africa are ignoring him as a stop-gap option, especially given how much of a weakness the opening berth has been in the two years since Graeme Smith's retirement.
A different explanation could lie in the identity of the attacks that Cook has played against. The Warriors had Test offspinner Simon Harmer in their ranks during his century last week, but they don't boast any quicks who are in genuine contention for an international call-up. Basheer Walters, Andrew Birch and Sisanda Magala are all pigeonholed as franchise veterans while Ayabulela Gqamane has struggled to build on the promise he showed in taking 76 wickets in two seasons in 2011-13.
Even Russell Domingo, the national coach, has admitted the domestic attacks can fail to inspire at some stages. "When Quinton de Kock when he plays in the Ram Slam, there are times when it looks like he is playing a benefit game because he is just playing with gay abandon," Domingo said during the Durban Test. "There is a gap developing between domestic and international cricket."
That gap has never been more glaring than in the first three rounds of the Sunfoil Series. In the second round, Imran Tahir, whose Test career was briefly reignited in India but has since been stubbed out, took 8 for 42 in the second innings for the Dolphins against the Knights and finished with 12 in the match. At the same time Dane Piedt, who has been competing with Tahir for the Test spinner's role, took 5 for 153 in the Boxing Test.
Piedt was asked afterwards about the pressures of Test cricket when compared to franchise fixtures and this was his answer: "Test cricket is not played on the couch - if it was played on the couch it would be an easy game. Test cricket is not a Sunfoil Series game against the Knights in Kimberley."
The next day, when asked whether players have to take ever bigger steps up from franchise to international cricket, Domingo also referenced Tahir. "There are concerns around the depth and the strength of first-class cricket," he said. "Imran has come back and picked up 8 for 40 straightaway. He is a quality bowler and he has done it before but it just shows the difference between domestic cricket and international cricket."
Still, the domestic circuit is the only place where underperforming internationals can be sent to revive their form. Dane Vilas and JP Duminy, who recent casualties of South Africa's poor performances, responded with unbeaten innings of 219 and a career-best 260 respectively for the Cobras in their ongoing match against the Lions. Cook is at the crease at the moment. But all three men are aware that performances on the domestic circuit are not really how future internationals are currently being found.
Instead, the selectors prefer to put their faith in the South Africa A side. Marchant de Lange came to their attention after taking 5 for 56 against the touring Australians in November 2011. Faf du Plessis and Dean Elgar got their breaks after big hundreds against Sri Lanka A in 2012. Temba Bavuma made a case for himself with a century against the England Lions early last year.
The rationale has some logic: the A team is where the best domestic cricketers are exposed to a version of international cricket. They can measure themselves against the next best from other countries. Similarly, the under-19 side, from which Kagiso Rabada was plucked, also provides that chance.
So why then did Cook's unbeaten 53 against an England XI before the current series stated not earn him a similar opportunity, when de Kock's second-innings 53 did? It is a question that the selectors have so far sidestepped, except to say that de Kock is regarded as the future - which implies that Cook is the opposite.
Neither the players nor the selectors are helped by the scheduling, in which only one round of first-class matches was possible before the Tests began because the T20 competition had taken priority. Instead, squads have to be based on last season's form, with A-team cricket as a final gauge. Inevitably that means some players are going to miss out.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent