The praise and the superlatives to describe Ben Stokes innings and his partnership with Jonny Bairstow will come thick and fast over the next 24 hours, and probably beyond. And rightly so too, for anyone who witnessed the murderous assault on South Africa’s bowling this morning was privileged to watch something exceptional.
Firstly though, let’s take the match position. England’s mammoth 629-6 declared is clearly insurance against defeat, so South Africa are playing for the rest of the game to try and save it. They’ve done well to reach 141-2 by the close, and the pitch is showing no signs of deterioration at this stage. First innings runs are therefore key in currently very benign conditions, for the first target has to be to reach 430 to avoid the follow on. The rate of England’s scoring has opened up their options, in that South Africa will need to bat for at least another day and a half in order to make the game reasonably safe, and flat surface or not, that is going to be a challenge. It could have been a bigger one, had Joe Root not shelled a fairly straightforward chance at slip to dismiss AB De Villiers off James Anderson. If taken, South Africa would have been in dire straits.
As it is, with Hashim Amla recovering some form and with De Villiers granted a life, this pair will need to bat long into tomorrow to protect what looks a flakey lower order. They couldn’t ask for a better pitch on which to do so, as while scoreboard pressure brings its own issues, in the purest terms there’s no reason why South Africa shouldn’t be able to save the game. Avoiding silly run outs would help.
That is for tomorrow, for now it is about two players who played in differing manners most of the time. Stokes carried on from where he left off last night, which is all very well except he carried on for a session and a half. This was T20 brought into Test cricket. On many occasions we see a player do this for short periods, it is extremely rare for it to continue and continue and continue.
The records tumbled, as the pair added a scarcely credible 399 in just 59 overs, with the two (since Moeen was 0 not out without facing, it is the two) belting 312 off 38.5 overs. To put that into context, if that was an ODI, there would be a chance of them overhauling the world record total. They were scoring faster than was happening in the Big Bash match on the next channel.
For the record Stokes double century was the fastest ever by an Englishman, beating Ian Botham’s 208 ball knock against India, and second only to Nathan Astle’s 153 ball effort at Christchurch. It could be argued that particular innings was an outlier, given it was on a drop in pitch, but records are records. It is the fastest ever 250 in Tests; the 130 scored in the morning the highest in Test history for a first session; the most sixes (11) by an England batsman ever, and joint second globally; the highest run rate in any partnership of 200 or more runs in Test history; the highest sixth wicket partnership in Test history….oh the hell with it. Go and have a read of all of them:
Of course statistics are one thing, actually witnessing the innings is another. Stokes has a delightfully simple technique, trigger movements are minimal and there isn’t much to go wrong with it. The bat comes down straight, the footwork is decent enough. What that means is that when he is in a mood like this he is going to strike the ball very cleanly. Given how he batted, that seems obvious, but he retains his body shape when going after the bowling. There was only one occasion where there was a slightly wild swing and a miss, for the rest of the time, even if he mistimed it a touch it was recognisably a cricket shot – at no point did it descend into slogging. Instead it was simply awesome power, one shot that went out of the ground will live long in the memory.
While Stokes will be the inevitable focus, Jonny Bairstow’s innings was in its own way equally majestic. He was entirely content to play the supporting role while Stokes was causing mayhem, yet his own innings was anything but laggardly, and he went from 100 to 150 in the blink of an eye. It says much for Stokes’ awesome innings that a player can score 150 and not be the main focus.
Yet it wouldn’t just have been Bairstow who had a tear in his eye when he reached his maiden Test century. The celebration said everything there is to say, it was a special moment.
Days like this don’t come along too often, not just the run scoring feats but the manner and sheer bravado in how it was done. This is the sort of day that gets kids interested, because they want to be the next Ben Stokes. And God knows English cricket could do with some of that right now. Stokes announced himself to Australia in the last Ashes down under, and today he announced himself to the world. It was a reminder of why we love the game, a nudge that despite all the issues with governance, the ICC and ECB, the purity of two players having the time of their lives is something that can’t be taken away from anyone. South Africa’s bowlers, especially poor Chris Morris who took the brunt of the battering, may beg to differ.
And then Stokes went and bagged himself a wicket as well. Bloody hell.
Day three discussion here.