Hindsight is always 20/20, and following the performances of Stephen Cook and Quinton de Kock at the Wanderers, the South African selectors might be wondering “what if” they had selected them at the start of the current series. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Since the retirement of Alviro Petersen in 2014, South African selectors have seemingly been playing “pin the bat on the opener” while ignoring the most obvious solution: picking an opener. Stiaan van Zyl, the Cobras’ middle order batsman was earmarked to become the next opener when Petersen called it quits, but repeated attempts to force him into that role failed while South Africa’s selection committee refused to see it. It took nine Tests before Cricket South African finally saw the light and opted for the most logical solution: picking an opener, who is actually an opener, to, err, open the batting.
It’s easy to say now that he so seamlessly scored a hundred, but with a first-class career that has spanned over a decade and 10,000 first-class runs to his name, it seems utterly staggering that Stephen Cook was not selected when Petersen retired from international cricket. For the two seasons leading up to Petersen’s retirement, Cook averaged 43.47 and 67.00, scoring 826 runs and 1,072 runs in those two respective seasons. The oft-cited line from the Cricket South Africa camp was that Cook was a bit on the old side, and did not quite fit into future plans since he does not have that much time left in his career, but this was a somewhat curious approach. Chris Rogers, Adam Voges and countless others made their debuts in their 30s, and with age comes experience.
With over 160 first-class matches to his name, Cook has been around the block and during a time when they desperately needed cool and calm heads, his experience would have been worth its weight in gold. When Cook was selected to open the batting in a warm-up match against England and carried his bat, they should have known that that he had something to offer the team.
Consistency in selection has been one of Cricket South Africa’s greatest strengths in recent times and, it is understandable that they wanted to give Van Zyl a chance, but the way they went about it simply wasn’t conducive to easing the already challenging transition they found themselves in. Dropping JP Duminy or Faf du Plessis after the horror show tour of India, and using Van Zyl in the middle order against England would have been a far wiser move. But hindsight is always 20/20 and mistakes do happen.
The thing is, it’s not the only mistake the current selection panel has made. Quinton de Kock’s exclusion, too, should have raised a few eyebrows. Dropped in Bangladesh and then sent off to score tons for fun with the A-team, De Kock more than repented for his sins. In three matches with the A-side, all played in India, De Kock scored three hundreds. Considering his solid record against India (albeit in limited overs) and the fact that he had just played in those conditions, excluding him for that tour to India seemed most peculiar. Including Dane Vilas, who is a good batsman, but not always convincing with the gloves, was a strange decision.
De Kock had to wait until Cape Town to even be included in the squad, and while his shot selection in Cape Town left much to be desired, the 24-year old is one of those players who can be quite extraordinary once he has settled. His maiden hundred at Centurion, and the emotional celebration that went with it, showed that while he might not be one of the most intellectual cricketers, performing at this level means a lot.
Navigating the current transitional phase will take some maverick vision, and while the selectors have erred on a number of positions, they do deserve credit for the ones they got right. Backing Kagiso Rabada at the tender age of 20 has paid its dividends, and while he should be managed carefully, CSA’s High Performance Centre is keeping a beady eye on his work load. That he was excluded in Durban, for exactly that reason, shows that the selection panel does have at least an inkling of forward thinking vision.
The selection of Temba Bavuma, too, deserves to be lauded. Bavuma has become South Africa’s fourth-highest Test run scorer since January 2015, and has showed calmness and maturity at Test level against an attack that has made some of South Africa’s more experienced campaigners look dubious.
The inclusion of Hardus Viljoen at the Wanderers also warrants a mention. He was the form player and made his debut on the back of successive 10-fors and knew the Wanderers conditions better than any other bowler. In hindsight, Kyle Abbott would have provided better balance to the attack, but to pick a wildcard player like Viljoen shows that at least selectors have the willingness to go for the maverick option, even if that comes against the advice of some. The selection panel’s real test will come when selection the Test squad to face New Zealand in August. They will have to make decisions off the back of these last few Tests, and without any first class cricket to go by. South African cricket fans will be hoping they took a few lessons from the last few months. DM