Respecting the Seniors

There’s an unwanted title which exists in every cricket playing nation, one which is both a back-handed compliment and an awkward offer of sympathy: “Best player never to have played for his country.”

England has more ‘one-cap wonders’ than any other country, partly because it has more first-class teams to choose from than any other but also because of history of inconsistency and unrealistic expectations when it comes to selection. But at least all of those players have the knowledge that years of endeavour and no small amount of skill was recognised and appreciated by the highest appointed authority in their country.

The selection of a senior, consistently performing player to his national team is always lauded and welcomed by his juniors because it sends a critical message – that performance at domestic level will a) be noticed and b) rewarded.

Not every cricketer plays the game with the lure of international representation as a chief motivation, but the majority do. Supporters may view some cricketers as mere ‘journeymen’ for whom the possibility of a national cap has long passed, but they would be surprised. Some cricketers may be playing out the final years of their careers for the pure love of the game, and others may even be starting it for the same reason without sparing a thought for higher honours, but they are in a small minority.

Take Cobras captain Justin Ontong, for example. Last season he captained his country in a T20 International. He admitted he was “disappointed” at his omission from the national squad to play two T20s in Bangladesh in July but recommitted himself to fighting for a place in the squad for the T20 World Cup in India in March next year. He is 36.

All of this makes it painful to witness the continued exclusion of Lions opener Stephen Cook from any form of international recognition. Unlike many others, he did not make an explosive start to his career. But he has improved every single year, topping the run scoring tables in various competitions and producing the sort of consistency craved by everyone in his profession.

Perhaps the impression that he is ‘journeyman’ lingers too strongly. South Africa’s selectors have been more ageist than any others in the last 20 years. By and large, if you haven’t received a ‘nod from the top’ (including ‘A’ team) by the age of 25, you’re unlikely to get one. What a sad state of affairs.

Cook, by the way, has a first-class average of 40.66 in a 158-game career including 33 hundreds and a top score of 390. Some journeyman.

All sportsmen need to believe in the integrity of the system in which they work. The same applies to all spheres of employment, I suppose. But what should Cook think, now that he failed to garner even a mention in the debate for the vacant opener’s berth in the Proteas Test XI? Has he not done enough? Of course, he has. Oh, and what about Andrew Puttick, for that matter. Averaging 41.44 in 149 games with 24 centuries and a top score of 250*.

The individuals are important, as are their feelings. But, sorry to say, the more important detail is the effect that their treatment may have on the credibility of the domestic game and the motivation levels amongst its exponents. Not even a place on the SA ‘A’ tour? Cook is 32, Puttick 34. Senior professionals, seasoned and experienced. Was there really a role for neither of them?

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