Sometimes it pays to just fasten the seat belt, sit back and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it has been. In to bat on a hat-trick, Ben Stokes produced an innings that will for ever sit in the memory of those fortunate enough to have been at Newlands, and many who were not, so that by the time he was run out, in slightly comical fashion, an hour after lunch, after AB de Villiers had dropped a vertical mishit at mid-on, he had made 258, the highest score by an England batsman against South Africa.
As if that, in itself, tells a story of a remarkable innings that went from strength to strength, the stroke play becoming increasingly outrageous and carefree until the bowling looked utterly bereft under the onslaught. It was quite possibly the most brutally destructive innings that any England batsman has ever played, the records tumbling by the minute, it seemed.
For almost five hours of his innings, during which the pair constructed a partnership of 399, the highest for the sixth wicket in Test history, Stokes had a companion even more flame-haired than he. On any other day, Jonny Bairstow’s maiden Test century would be the story of the day, a beautiful innings so wrapped in emotion that there were tears of joy and sadness mixed when he lambasted the square cut that took him to three figures, and looked to the azure sky above from where his father, David, might have been watching, ruddy-faced, chest-puffed chuffed for his lad.
Peter Roebuck once said that he felt his role as a Somerset batsman was to stay in long enough to prevent Viv Richards and Ian Botham batting together lest it degenerate into a hitting contest and it was to Bairstow’s immense credit now that until the very end, when a declaration was imminent and the bowling was on its knees, he resisted the temptation to try to cling on to the coattails of Stokes and match him, rather allowing himself to be towed along nicely in the slipstream, under the radar almost.
It was, though, an immense innings from him, the first hundred by an England keeper since Matt Prior’s rearguard at Auckland three years ago, and one that will have established his right to the No7 in the England order. With the confidence of knowing that, there will surely come advancement in his keeping, for this is a considerable cricketer who has worked hard and patiently to earn his stripes. With Stokes gone, Alastair Cook allowed him the luxury of reaching 150 before the declaration and a sprint from the field.
Stokes and Bairstow had already dug England out of a hole on the previous evening, with 150 runs coming in the final session. How, then, would they consolidate this on the second day. Fresh guard, assess the conditions, start over? Stokes answered this by hitting five boundaries in the first two overs of a day that was to produce an additional 312 for England at a rate of eight runs per over, a speed that no side has ever managed in a day’s play of more than 200 runs. It took Stokes a dozen deliveries only to go from his overnight 74 to his third Test hundred, the first by an England batsman at Newlands since MJK Smith in 1965.
Now his innings became an exhibition of butchery, the ball carved, cut, thrashed, driven, and having the daylights belted out of it. It took him 35 balls to go from 100 to 150, the fastest for England, and a further 28 to reach 200, 163 balls in all, which left him shy of Nathan Astle’s fastest ever double hundred, from 153 balls, scored against England in Christchurch in 2002, but it bettered by three deliveries Virender Sehwag’s mark for the second fastest.
By lunch Stokes had reached 204, which meant 130 runs for him in a two-hour session, a rate of scoring in the first session that no batsman has ever managed in a Test. Beyond the interval, once Bairstow had reached his own hundred, from 161 balls with 12 fours, the bat was flung at everything by both batsmen.
When he had 138 Bairstow was dropped at long-off by Morne Morkel, who was castigated by the crowd thereafter. Meanwhile Stokes was adding to his six count, pulling a second ball not just over the boundary but out of the ground, over the railway and into the Castle brewery beyond, for the 10th of his innings, which equalled Walter Hammond’s England record for an innings, and then blasted the next ball, also from the unfortunate Kagiso Rabada, over long-on to claim that record for his own as well.
It was only attempting a third six for the over that he skied massively to mid-on, where De Villiers waited and waited and then fumbled the catch. Stokes, though, had been ball-watching rather than running, and the fielder was able to gather the ball and hurl down the wicket.
The South Africa bowlers, all of them, had been brutalised, but how to bowl at or contain such an onslaught? Try your best ball, or yorker? Do your utmost to get the batsman off strike? Length balls disappeared, short balls were pulled mercilessly. The idea of reverting to power-play white-ball tactics seems compelling, especially as Chris Morris is seen as a short-form specialist, but England were scoring at white-ball rate already. A bouncer barrage with men out was tried and found wanting, and the off-spinner Dane Piedt must have offered up a prayer with every delivery he sent. All four main bowlers conceded in excess of 100 runs, with Morris on debut taking one for 150 and Rabada three for 175.
The declaration allowed England 43 overs at South Africa and, as local knowledge had suggested, there was not the same sprightliness in the pitch on the second day. There was an early success for England when Stiaan van Zyl was run out in a mix-up with Dean Elgar but it looked as if it would be hard work for England to make inroads.
It took Stokes (it had to be) to end a second-wicket stand of 78 between Elgar and Hashim Amla, when his ferocity saw Elgar splice a short ball to backward point, where Nick Compton made good ground to take the catch.
England should have added the further wicket of De Villiers, who when five edged Jimmy Anderson waist high to Joe Root at second slip. But the catch burst through to the boundary. South Africa closed on 141 for two, with Amla on 64 and de Villiers 25. Ominous.