CAPE TOWN - With tea approaching on the penultimate day in the third and final Test between South Africa and Australia at Newlands in March 2014, skipper Graeme Smith fell victim to a short ball delivered by his arch-nemesis Mitchell Johnson.
There was to be no final fourth-innings vigil he was so revered for. Smith departed his most beloved ground under the watch of Table Mountain for the last time to draw the curtain on an illustrious Test career. Even in the heat of battle for the ICC’s golden mace did the Australians halt their celebrations and applaud the man they know as “Biff”. Smith turned his back to salute the opposition and his family.
And ever since - now three years on already - have SA been on the lookout for a man worthy of filling those substantial size 13s. Some would suggest Dean Elgar is the closest fit due to his similar gritty demeanour and left-handed stubbornness, but even his 2 002 runs in 35 Test matches at an average of 39.25 pales in comparison to Smith’s 9 625 runs in 117 Tests at 48.25. The only consolation for Elgar may be that no-one will possibly match those numbers opening the batting for SA.
The more urgent quest, though, is to find a partner for Elgar by the time the famed Lord’s bell rings to signal the start of the first Test against England in July.
Many have been trialled - mostly transformed middle-order batsmen - since that sunlit day at Newlands but none have yet showed the necessary mental aptitude and necessary technique to withstand the tests that come with facing the gleaming red Kookaburra, Duke or SG ball on a regular basis.
It is no surprise that the one habitual opener, Stephen Cook, has put up the best fight thus far, with three centuries and two fifties in his 11 Tests to his credit. However, Cook’s visible shortcomings against the swinging ball in Australia and New Zealand has led to his Test career being halted after being dropped for the final Test against the Black Caps in Hamilton for debutant Theunis de Bruyn.
The Knights skipper - another converted middle-order batsman - was not an instant hit either, but with Cook, pictured, being 34-years-old the inevitable question is whether there is way back for a man who used to hit balls at the Wanderers Indoor Centre with Smith back when they were both little nippers at King Edward in Johannesburg.
“The door isn’t closed on Stephen Cook at all. Absolutely not,” said national convenor of selectors Linda Zondi on Wednesday. “We have backed Stephen over the past year and thought it was in his best interests to sit out at the time.
“The decision to use Theunis was also only a once-off. We had gone on tour with a reserve batsman, reserve all-rounder and, of course, a reserve wicketkeeper. Theunis was the reserve batsman on tour and was given the opportunity, but it’s not a long-term plan. The door is certainly not shut on Stephen Cook. The England tour is a big tour and we don’t want to be going into the Test series with a lot of debutants and a lack of experience. Test cricket is won by teams with experience.”
It is with this mindset that Zondi is approaching a looming critical selection meeting for there is another experienced member of the Proteas batting unit under scrutiny. JP Duminy’s second coming has not exactly been jammed full of milk and honey. In fact, it’s been quite bitter of late with Duminy averaging just 20.80 in New Zealand after more fruitful pickings against Sri Lanka when he averaged 54.60.