Stephen Cook eager to take Test chance
Of all the things on Stephen Cook's mind over the last few weeks, having gas in the tank was not one of them. Cook is a batsman who concerns himself with making runs and leading the Lions. At least, that's what he did until this morning, when he was given instructions to worry about something else.
"I got a call from [convener of selectors] Linda Zondi and he said, 'Make sure you've got a full tank of petrol because you're going to be driving to Centurion'," Cook told ESPNcricinfo. "And then I just thought to myself, dreams really do come true."
Cook, now 33, has longed to be part of a South Africa squad since he was a young boy and both he and his family did everything in their power to achieve that. He went to a prestigious sporting school, King Edward VII School, the same institute that educated his father Jimmy, as well as Neil McKenzie and Graeme Smith. He played in the Coke Week (the country's most recognised tournament for promising youngsters) twice, for his university, for his province, for his franchise and even for South Africa A. But something always stood in his way on the step up.
A large chunk of Cook's career coincided with stability in South Africa's Test top-order, thanks largely to Smith. But there were the others too. In the 2010-11 season Cook finished behind, among others, Jacques Rudolph, who made his comeback in November 2011. In 2011-12, Cook was behind Alviro Petersen, who was recalled January 2012. In the season that followed, Stiaan van Zyl, Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma all scored more runs than Cook and were given opportunities before him.
Then, in the 2014-15 season, Cook led the run charts and South Africa needed an opener. It seemed a no-brainer to pick him but because van Zyl, a regular No. 3, had been promised a chance, Cook was again overlooked.
At first, that decision seemed, if not sensible, fair. Van Zyl was the leading run-scorer in the 2013-14 summer, had been included in the national squad on those grounds and scored a century on debut batting at No. 6 in place of the injured JP Duminy. Van Zyl knew that when Duminy returned to fitness, the only place for him would be at the top and he prepared for that role by opening the batting for his franchise, the Cobras.
By the time South Africa toured Bangladesh in July, van Zyl was declared ready to take over the senior role. He only had two innings in the first Test, and scored 34 and 33* but it was seen as enough to take him as the opener to India. That was where the mistake was made.
The Bangladesh series was so badly affected by rain that South Africa could not actually glean anything from it. They knew the India series would be an enormous challenge for a team in transition and they still chose a makeshift opener over an experienced one.
Van Zyl was not the only batsmen that struggled in India - they all did - but he was among those whose confidence was shot. He struggled with basic things like awareness of his off stump and should have been sent back to domestic cricket to regain form instead of retained for the England tour. But the selectors wanted to see what he could do at home and kept him on even as his self-belief shrank.
At the same time, Cook was reminding them what they were missing. He scored an unbeaten 53 for South Africa A against England in the warm-up game in Pietermaritzburg, followed up with 168 not out for the Lions in his first domestic match of the season, then scores of 118 and 76. With van Zyl stumbling to 0, 33, 2, 21 and 11 against England, the chorus for Cook was growing louder and even he heard it.
"I haven't had buried my head in the sand, I know there has been a lot being said in the media, especially with the trouble the team has had," Cook said. "But I've also had other goals in mind, like playing well for the Lions. In a way, it's been good that I've been distracted by that."
Now, with the series already lost and South Africa's next Tests six months away, the selectors have finally heard too. Cook is in the squad, albeit with no guarantee that he will play. Van Zyl has been retained along with Rilee Rossouw, also a No. 3 who was asked to open for the Knights in the last round of matches, but the public sentiment will be one of injustice if Cook is not given a chance. He is doing his best to ignore that.
"With or without the expectation, there's pressure. But then throughout my life there has been pressure," he said. "What might be pressure for me will be different for a guy like AB de Villiers. Growing up, I was always Jimmy Cook's son, so there was that pressure. There were the pressures of opening the batting at the Wanderers, where the ball is whizzing around your ears. So I've had different pressures. I hope I am not seen as a batting saviour because that will be a bit unfair but if I play I am sure I can add value."
Perhaps it will work in Cook's favour that South Africa don't have anything left to save. The Centurion Test is a chance to salvage pride and to start something new, now that South Africa have accepted their golden era is gone. For Cook, that could mean a chance to build on his bigger dream, which he believes is still alive.
"HD Ackerman said to me years ago that, for so many people, the call-up is the dream and that's a mistake," Cook said. "If people had the mindset that scoring Test hundreds is the dream, it would be different. So yes, my bigger dream is scoring Test hundreds, and winning series for South Africa. My age is the one argument that I could never understand. There have been plenty of examples in South Africa and in other countries of guys who debuted even later than this and went on to be successful. So I hope this is the start of something and maybe in 18 months when we look back we can say the Centurion Test was where it all began."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent