Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Stokes Show

Sunday, 3 January 2016
England have something of a love affair with all-rounders. Really, most countries do. Those inspirational, mesmeric figures who can take the game like no other, win a match with the bat or with the ball. We've had Botham, a player as good as they get, the one who all since have been compared to. We've had Flintoff, the hero of 2005 and an icon on the pitch, not statistically as great but still with that great ability to inspire and lead. And now, out of the same mould we have Ben Stokes. He's already brought his share of magic moments to this England side, but today he went beyond what anyone could have imagined.

When he arrived at the crease, it wasn't an easy situation, one where he could just attack from the off. Kasigo Rabada, in for Dale Steyn, was on a hat trick after knocking over Compton (45) and then Taylor first ball. When Bairstow joined him at the crease, the score was 223/5 and England were in danger of letting a good position slip. The top four had made starts - Hales making his first fifty and Root also reaching the milestone - but they'd also gotten out. Yet the recovery was made with the old ball, and then rather than just getting by with the new one before the end of the first day's play, this pair went on the attack. At the close of play England were 317/5, Stokes on 74* with a strike rate close to 80, Bairstow not out on 39. Already they had put on 94 together from only 115 deliveries. The job was far from done, but England had the advantage.

Yet nothing could prepare anyone for what was about to happen on the second morning. England might have taken the attack to South Africa the previous evening, but really we hadn't seen anything yet. There aren't enough superlatives in the world to describe how Ben Stokes batted. It was a simply extraordinary, unbelievable display of attacking batting. His strike rate was close to 80 at the start of the day's play, but on day two it was closer to 200. He hit 130 runs before lunch, the most ever by a batsman in the first session of a day's play. His century came off 105 balls, his double from 163 - the second fastest double century of all time. He hit 30 fours and 11 sixes. His overall strike rate was 130.3. 258 from 198 deliveries. The numbers are incredible in themselves, but it was still nothing compared to watching it. To experiencing the sheer wonder and amazement of seeing it happen. South Africa were in disarray, the bowlers lost and not knowing what to do. They needed to be much better, but then, when the guy at the other end is playing like that, how can you really respond?

Jonny Bairstow was there too, almost forgotten as he made his maiden test century. He played second fiddle to Stokes, content to give him the strike and let the fireworks explode at the other end. Still he made 150 off a mere 191 balls, complete with 18 fours and two sixes. It was a century that was a long time coming, but one richly deserved nevertheless, and certainly an emotional moment. Bairstow has struggled to nail down his place in the side during his test career so far - and with Buttler around, will always be looking over his shoulder - but he has looked to be one of England's most in form batsmen in these first two tests and is really starting to make a strong impression in the team. I myself have always been a massive fan, perhaps even more so after such a brilliant season at Yorkshire, and can only say how delighted I am for him right now. Together the pair put on 399 runs with a run rate of 6.91, also England's second highest partnership ever for any wicket.

How to come down from all that then? van Zyl was run out early on in South Africa's response, the kind of run out that comes after the opposition have racked up 629/6 and batted they way they did. Stokes also took a wicket, of course, dismissing Elgar for 44. South Africa were 141/2 at the close of play, with Amla making a return to form with 64*, and de Villiers alongside him on 25. They have a big job to do, trailing by 488.

2016 has certainly started with a bang. The question is, what could ever follow this?

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