Stephen Cook makes impressive first impression

Lunch South Africa 107 for 1 (Cook 46*, Amla 34*) v England
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‘England are not unbeatable’ – de Villiers

A Test debut at the ripe old age of 33 is something to take seriously. Stephen Cook was never going to regard it any other way. As Cook took his chance on the first morning at SuperSport Park, an air of gravitas descended upon the start of the final Test in Centurion.

South Africa would settle for that. Cook’s dependability guided them to 107 for 1 by lunch, his own contribution four short of a maiden Test 50, and England’s only success after they had lost the toss came from an astounding short leg catch – another one to follow two superb efforts in Johannesburg – by James Taylor.

Taylor’s catch to dismiss Dean Elgar left the batsman with hands on hips in disbelief. Moeen Ali’s off-spin was given an outing in the first hour and Elgar, as he likes to do, came down the pitch to his fourth delivery with attacking intent. The ball flew forcefully to the leg side and, as Taylor moved sharp-wittedly with the batsman, the ball lodged in his midriff.

Where was it? When the ball released and headed towards ground, Taylor had the instinct to clamp his legs together and somehow trapped it between right ankle and thigh. After much wrapping of hands round legs, he finally found it. England’s Danger Mouse, standing where many fear to tread, had come up with the goods again.

England might also have dismissed Hashim Amla, on 5, when Ben Stokes found the edge but Alastair Cook put down a tough catch at first slip as the wicketkeeper, Jonny Bairstow, flew across his sightline.

Stephen Cook’s diligence, though, remained uninterrupted. He batted conscientiously through the morning, moving across to off stump and picking off the leg-side gaps. Occasionally, he risked a pleasing off-side drive. It was a methodology that soothed the wounds of recent failures.

Neither could anybody suggest that South Africa’s progress was pedestrian. To raise a hundred represents a good lick in the first session of a Test

Cook was helped by a stodgy surface – hard to bear after the pace of the Wanderers a few miles down the road – and an England attack unable to summon much vigour. AB de Villiers’ pre-Test assertion that England had top-order weaknesses and that at least one component of their pace attack – James Anderson – was highly-skilled, but down on pace, looked what it was: less a declaration of war as a reasonable statement of the facts.

Anderson needed three wickets to go past Richard Hadlee into seventh place in the Test wickets list, but there was little suggestion in the morning session that they would come easily. Chris Woakes, the replacement for the injured Steven Finn, had not bowled since the first Test in Durban and it looked like it as he bowled too short.

The series had been lost and South Africa had relinquished their No. 1 Test ranking in the process. They felt obliged to make wholesale changes. As well as Cook’s debut, there were also recalls for JP Duminy, Quinton de Kock, Kyle Abbott and Dane Piedt.

Elgar and Cook were not about to cause pulses to race but the opening partnership was designed for a crisis. Scrappers both, their task was to put up measured resistance. The combination of a right and left handed pair was an advantage but, whichever way around they stood, the emphasis was on accumulation.

As far as his father, watching intently from the stands, was concerned, Cook’s Test debut at 33 made him a mere stripling compared to Jimmy himself who was 39 when he made his Test debut against India, got a first-baller and played only twice more. Few batsmen of such quality have been so lightly rewarded.

South Africa’s record in Tests at Centurion is outstanding – except in Tests against England. They have won 15 out of 20 matches at the venue, with just two defeats, most recently against a Mitchell Johnson-inspired Australia in 2014. Little in the first session will have shaken their hopes that the ground can still serve them well.

South Africa 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Stephen Cook, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 AB de Villiers (capt), 5 JP Duminy, 6 Temba Bavuma, 7 Quinton de Kock (wk), 8 Dane Piedt, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Kyle Abbott, 11 Morne Morkel

England 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Nick Compton, 4 Joe Root, 5 James Taylor, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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