Stephen Cook keen on Lions turnaround
A new-look Lions leadership pack, headed by Stephen Cook, will take the franchise into the 2014/15 season. Cook has been appointed first-class and 50-overs captain while Neil McKenzie will lead their 20-over side. Batsman Temba Bavuma will act as deputy in all three formats. Alviro Petersen, who stepped down as captain last season, remains part of Lions' squad but has not been tasked with any leadership duties.
"I am greatly honoured to have been given this job. I grew up on the banks of the Wanderers watching my dad play and leadership is something I've always wanted to be involved in," Cook told ESPNcricinfo. "I know its going to be a tough challenge but I am really looking forward to it."
After finishing second in the first-class competition and winning the twenty-over trophy in the 2012/13 season, Lions were rudely brought back down to earth last summer. They finished bottom of the points table in all three competitions in a season that was plagued by injuries and unhappiness. While seamer Chris Morris battled an ankle injury, Petersen stood down on the morning of a match after what he called interference by the selectors, forcing Thami Tsolekile to take over at the 11th hour.
That marked the lowest point in the Lions' dismal season and Cook is keen to move on. "Our players did not become bad overnight. I think what happened is because we had done so well the season before, we didn't adapt to the fact that other teams had improved and we were caught on the hop," he said. "But we have resisted the urge to make too many changes."
Lions have held on to their players from last summer and have made two additions to their group. Devon Conway, who was named the provincial one-day cricketer of the year at CSA's awards last week, has been added to the contracted list along with under-19 World Cup winner Kagiso Rabada, who made his first-class debut at the end of last season.
They have three nationally-contracted players on their books: Petersen, Quinton de Kock and Lonwabo Tsotsobe and an experienced core which includes Cook, McKenzie and Tsolekile. McKenzie will turn 39 in the coming season but has committed himself to playing in all formats for Lions.
Cook has made it clear everyone, including the new faces, will have more demanded of them this season. "We are all really motivated to do well and guys know they will get will get pressed a little harder and asked to work a little smarter," he said.
For Cook, the goal is simple. He wants the franchise to be able to add to the trophy cupboard and if he has it his way, it will be in the longest format. "Every competition is important but for me, it would be most special to win the first-class [competition] because that is the one that really tests you as a squad," he said. "You have to play good cricket for 40 days, whereas with the limited-overs [game] you could end up third and have a good day and then make the final. The first-class is also the competition I have never won with Lions. The last time they won it here was the season before I made my professional debut."
That was 15 years ago in the 1999/2000 season, before the franchise system had formed. Back then, all Cook wanted to do was play for what was then Gauteng and eventually for South Africa. A decade and a half later, it is still all he wants. "I have never given up on playing for South Africa. That's my driving force."
Cook is a regular among the top ten run-scorers in the first-class competition but has struggled for higher honours largely because of where he bats - in the top two. The presence of Graeme Smith in the Test team made it difficult for Cook to get a look-in but with Smith retired, a vacancy in the national team and a platform from which to audition for it, Cook still believes anything is possible, for both him and his Lions.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent