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News Analysis

Cellophane Cook primed to answer South Africa's call

Amid growing concerns about the depth and quality of South Africa's batting reserves, the time may be nigh for one of the country's most consistent performers to earn a call-up

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Stephen Cook carried his bat for an unbeaten half-century in the first innings at Pietermaritzburg  •  Getty Images

Stephen Cook carried his bat for an unbeaten half-century in the first innings at Pietermaritzburg  •  Getty Images

"If someone stood up in a crowd
And raised their voice up way out loud
And waved their arm and shook his leg
You'd notice him..."

"....Everyone gets noticed, now and then
Unless of course, that personage should be
Invisible, inconsequential me...
So sings Amos Hart, the good-hearted husband of Chicago's Roxie, when he laments his own invisibility. Stephen Cook would relate. He is South African cricket's own Mr Cellophane, who has been looked right through despite being among the top 10 run-scorers in the first-class competition for the last seven seasons including the last one, when he finally topped the charts only to find himself still on the outside.
Now, with a four-Test series against England looming, and on a weekend in which most of South Africa's national batsman failed to find form, the 33-year-old Cook carried his bat for an unbeaten 53 against the touring opposition. There is a growing sense that his time may finally have come.
"Stephen is a good player and of late, he has been scoring heavily and doing very well in the domestic set-up," Andrew Hudson, the former convener of selectors, told ESPNcricinfo. "I don't think he is too old and I think he has got a lot to offer but it's up to the selectors to see whether they want to continue with a makeshift opener or whether they feel they need a specialist."
Hudson led the selection panel for five years from 2010 to 2015, a period which coincided with Cook's performances, but, he added, picked Cook was always difficult because of personnel and circumstance. Cook's playing days have coincided with those of Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie, then with Jacques Rudolph and Alviro Petersen and more recently, with Dean Elgar, Stiaan van Zyl and Temba Bavuma.
"When Alviro retired, we already had Dean Elgar and he had done pretty well so that continued and then we made the decision to push Stiaan, who had also done reasonably well on different wickets, up," Hudson said. "It's quite a subjective thing. Sometimes the selectors feel someone can make the step up."
Van Zyl, a regular No.3, was the leading run-scorer in the first-class game the season before Cook topped the charts but, because there was no space in South Africa's middle-order, the only spot the selectors could find was at the top. So far, van Zyl has only opened in the subcontinent and, even though he appeared the most awkward on South Africa's tour of India, he will be given another opportunity to show what he can do in home conditions against England.
But Hudson has warned that they may be taking a risk given the quality of the bowlers they will be up against. "England have got a nice new-ball attack so it's about whether you expose someone like Stiaan or Temba Bavuma to the new ball or whether you feel you need someone who has done the job for a long time," Hudson said.
A chorus of former players are opting for the latter. Adam Bacher, a former team-mate of Cook's, told Netwerk24 he sees Cook as a "the team's response to Australia's Chris Rogers," and said he had never encountered a player with stronger mental strength than Cook. Meanwhile Boeta Dippenaar, a former Test player, impressed the need for "specialists" at the top. Barry Richards and Paul Harris have also been among those calling for Cook's inclusion.
The swathe of support for Cook became stronger during the tour match against the England XI, when his half-century also brought up his 11,000th first-class run. In the same match, Rilee Rossouw, the current reserve batsmen in the Test squad, scored just 6 and Dane Vilas and Quinton de Kock, who are on the fringes, each scored 4. Given the shakiness of South Africa's current middle-order and the seeming uncertainty about the depth of quality in the reserves, Cook could offer the steadiness South Africa currently lack.
Hudson admitted the scarcity of strong performances in the last two months is a concern ahead of a series in which South Africa could be toppled from their No.1 Test spot.
"I am not worried about individuals but I am worried about the batting unit," he said. "With the middle-order not being as settled as South Africa might like, the opening partnership becomes even more important. I think we will really have to pay attention to our batting if we are do well in this series."
And that may mean finally paying attention to Cook before it's too late and he ends up fading away to these words:
I tell ya Cellophane, Mr Cellophane shoulda been my name
Mr Cellophane 'cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me and never know I'm there
Never even know I'm there

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent