Alastair Cook is 31 on Christmas Day and, while his double dose of festivities will be tempered by the tedium of a training session and a press conference before the first Test with South Africa in Durban, the England captain will at least be free of any anxiety over his own form and that of his fellow batsmen.
The final Test in a rewarding 2015 for Cook will begin on Boxing Day at Kingsmead and it is one in which he can pass Michael Vaughan’s English record of 1,481 runs in a calendar year if he scores 125; on the evidence of his showing against South Africa A in England’s second warm-up match of the tour, you would not bet against it.
Cook’s 126 from 194 balls on the second day at City Oval was his 51st hundred in first-class cricket and along with Joe Root, the other pillar of England’s batting lineup who made 117 from 125 balls, the tourists were able to score 414 for six declared in 97.5 overs against the second string Proteas, who stuttered to 35 for two by the close.
With 56 for Alex Hales – the new opener purred first thing but shouldered arms to a straight one off the seamer Dane Paterson, his second such dismissal in his three innings on this tour – it means that each of the top six go into the four-Test series with a score of 50 or more under their belts. The world’s No1 team may be favourites but England are buoyant.
None more so than Ben Stokes at No6, who is finding the bounce and carry in South Africa to his liking compared with the previous tour in the United Arab Emirates and crunched 66 from 47 balls, including eight fours and two sixes, to follow a similarly brutal 158 from 131 in Potchefstroom last week.
In baking heat and on a pitch that saw them 136 all out in the first innings South Africa A wilted further. Hales and Cook shared 112 for the first wicket, with each of the first five partnerships passing 50.
Hales, until the brain fade that betrayed his focus on leaving the ball during net practise, largely convinced, with his on-drive while facing the seamer Chris Morris the pick of his nine fours.
Cook was at his back-foot best and never more so than when Marchant de Lange, a once tearaway quick who went unused in India after a mid-tour call-up, was pulled over mid-wicket for a second six that saw the England captain bring up his century from 155 balls.
Root, who shared 104 with Stokes in only 15.1 overs after tea, scored all around the wicket for a premium innings on the day he was deposed by New Zealand’s Kane Williamson as the world’s top batsman; his straight six off the spinner Keshav Maharaj, that landed in a tyre beyond the boundary rope, deserved a cuddly toy.
As for South Africa A, were England Lions to be so badly manhandled by a touring side serious questions would be asked. Maharaj did take four wickets – Nick Compton lbw for 29 when playing for spin that was not there, James Taylor caught and bowled on 15, Cook chipping to mid-on and Root held at square leg – but shipped 129 runs in 26.5 overs.
While Trevor Bayliss may have spent the day bristling to well-wishers on his turning 53, he knows England’s fine-tuning could scarcely have gone better. Stuart Broad’s lbw removal of the opener Stephen Cook and a fizzing off-break from Moeen Ali to bowl Reeza Hendricks through the gate late on, mildly improved his mood.
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