South Africa news January 8, 2016

Cook omission raises doubts about domestic quality

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Selectors keep faith in South Africa squad

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.

Stephen Cook impressed for South Africa A but has been overlooked for the Tests © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • JohanSchmidt on January 11, 2016, 7:46 GMT

    If the teams aren't picked solely on merit, quality will suffer through all the levels.

    Tough reality SA faces. Australia used Chris Rodgers for about 3 seasons (and he was older than Cook when he was initially picked)

  • faghmie murat on January 10, 2016, 18:52 GMT

    icc should ban south africa all events and international cricket due to quota systems what bull is that when its a game of fair play and every1 should feel they deserve their places in the national side rather than skin color.. unfair to the followers and lovers of the game

  • ansell on January 10, 2016, 17:56 GMT

    I agree with most of thirdboundary comments. DeKock is too good to leave out - as wicket keeper he is now very good (see the number of byes against England) and 2 centuries in India for the A team despite coming off an injury. Vilas averaged 9 runs in 7 innings in India and and leaked byes like crazy. Look at De Kock - 29 in tests, 39 in ODI, first class average 45. He is the best keeper in SA and a great batsman. My team, purely on merit and form: Cook, Elgar, Amla, DeVilliers, Bavuma, De Kock, Morris, Steyn/Abbott, Rabada, Morkel, Piedt. Oopa, sorry, I forgot to measure shades of color

  • thirdmanboundary on January 10, 2016, 13:35 GMT

    As a white SAfrican, I agree in part with Siviwe. Not his comment about whites as foreigners, but his comment about when anything goes wrong, if a player involved happens to be black or of color, the quota system is blamed. Players of color carry that extra burden of having to prove they're not quota picks. Bavuma, even Amla, mentioned that. Lots of SAfrican white players have been given repeated chances and failed: DeKock and Van Zyl among them. For Wanderers, I'd play Thami (and Cook to open) instead of DeKock. Thami is a casualty of having been brought in too early and then abandoned in favour of the perpetually unrealized test potential of DeKock. Also, you can't improvise with openers. You need specialists in those positions. It hasn't worked with Van Zyl and I'm horrified by the suggestion that Bavuma should open, just as he has established himself successfully in the middle order. Making him open would be a cynical ploy to guarantee his failure in a role alien to his talents.

  • newgraahm on January 10, 2016, 9:53 GMT

    @BROKENSAINT exactly my point from my earlier post, at last we are stating the severity of this situation...well said

  • Brokensaint on January 10, 2016, 7:03 GMT

    truth is the ICC according to its bylaws should ban south africa as this quota system is in direct contravention of it.

  • Siviwe Beshe on January 10, 2016, 3:48 GMT

    @ansell i wrote "most major leagues has restrictions on foreigners including EPL" as in English Premier League so its not unique to unique to cricket.

  • ansell on January 9, 2016, 23:42 GMT

    Siviwe, I am getting confused. Who are the "foreigners" in South Africa.

  • njr1330 on January 9, 2016, 22:33 GMT

    Sheer weight of first class runs, over a significant period, should be the only benchmark for a Test opener; on that basis, Cook is in!

    Even England have seen the light, bringing back Compton!

  • HappyDog on January 9, 2016, 21:13 GMT

    @MIKEINDEX - Yes Jimmy was amazing. Stephen Cook would do well in partnership with Tom Abell and Marcus Trescothick.

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