What happened here today was extraordinary and unforgettable. In a passage of play the like of which had not been seen, England broke records and South African hearts in equal measure.
Ben Stokes produced a coruscating innings of 258, the highest by anyone batting at No 6 in a Test match and comfortably the fastest double hundred for England. Jonny Bairstow made 150 not out, his maiden Test hundred, and together they shared a breathtaking partnership of 399, the highest of all for the sixth wicket and England’s second highest for any wicket.
It was difficult to grasp what was occurring in front of the eyes. Almost from the moment that the remarkable Stokes larruped his second and fourth balls of the second day of the second Test for four through cover, England sustained a constant assault.
Stokes was no more or less than a force of nature, his clean hitting – whether driving mercilessly through the off side, pulling brutally or plain old smashing it over long-on – a wonder to behold. He was a cricketer in his element, recognising that he was in the moment and not letting it pass.
It took him 12 balls to go from 74 overnight to his third Test hundred as England took the game by its scruff. In the 25 overs before lunch they scored 196, breaching defensive fields at will, leaving the bowlers perplexed about where it might be safe to bowl and repeatedly discovering that the answer was nowhere. Bairstow was positively pedestrian – at one point Stokes was outscoring him by more than two to one – but only by comparison. He was an ideal foil, scampering up and down the wickets when necessary and this was an authentic Test match innings.
It was his 37th for England – one more than it took Graham Gooch, who went on to become the leading runscorer, to make his first hundred – and his jubilation and relief were evident when he reached the landmark by cutting his 161st ball for four. He looked up to the sky, his face rigid with emotion, and it was difficult to avoid the thought that he was saying a prayer to his late father, David, who died 18 years ago this week.
This was batting mayhem of a kind more frequently seen in the Twenty20 arena. South Africa, bereft of three bowlers who would probably all have played before any member of this seam attack, were reduced to bystanders for the three or so hours England’s first innings continued. Stokes, brilliantly unfettered, was utterly indiscriminate in his prolonged onslaught: fast, slow, wide, straight, full, short, it all went the distance.
England called a halt to their innings almost as soon as Stokes was dismissed in bizarre circumstances. South Africa, facing a mountainous 629 for 6 declared, were 141 for 2, their main batsmen Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers in occupation, at the close. Had England dismissed De Villiers when they ought to have done – dropped by Joe Root at second slip on five – the tourists’ position might have been healthier still, the home side’s parlous.
The previous highest score by a No 6 in Tests was the 250 scored by Doug Walters for Australia against New Zealand in Christchurch 39 years ago. But Walters did not have to go in to face a hat-trick ball as Stokes did on Saturday evening after Kagiso Rabada had removed Nick Compton and James Taylor to leave England at 167 for 4
Having negotiated that without alarm, Stokes was irrepressible. He muscled England into a dominant position by the end of the first day and there was never any question but that he would keep his foot on the gas. Records came and went. It was the first century by an England batsman at Newlands since Mike Smith’s 121 in 1965, and when he passed 178 he overtook Graeme Hick’s score for the previous highest by an England No 6.
On and on went Stokes and Bairstow as the ball seemed to sail further and further over the boundaries. Shortly before lunch, Stokes reached his double hundred from 163 balls. Only Nathan Astle has done so more quickly, by a matter of 10 balls, but memorably bold though that was, he was batting in the fourth innings in what was almost a lost cause.
At no stage was Stokes inclined to reduce his pace. The five fifties which comprised his innings came in 70, 35, 30, 28 and 33 balls respectively. It was soon being asked where all this came in the pantheon of double hundreds for England, of which this was the 54th. Pretty high is the obvious answer without necessarily bestowing on it the exalted status of No 1.
It was outstanding by any standards but England were also in a bit of a hole both when Stokes entered and when he and Bairstow began their alliance at 223 for 5, with the innings in the balance.
What will always remain in the memory is the instinctive way in which Stokes played, realising that this was his time. It would be folly to expect him to play like this each time he goes to the crease and there have been innings when he has looked positively inept, managing to contrive for himself an awful tangle. But every so often, perhaps every 20 or 25 innings, he can be relied upon to provide something remarkable – remember Lord’s last year against New Zealand? Since when he has played 19 Test innings, which have included four ducks.
The end came just as everyone’s thoughts were turning to England’s first triple hundred for 26 years. He had just drilled his 10th and 11th sixes when, attempting the 12th, he hoisted a high catch to mid-on. There De Villiers shelled the chance but had the presence of mind to throw down the stumps as Stokes dithered mid-pitch.
There was time for Bairstow to hook another six and then England declared at 629 for 6, their highest total since 2011. When the hapless Stiaan van Zyl was run out looking for a non-existent single and that man Stokes induced Dean Elgar to fend a lifter to gully, England sensed blood. For the moment they had to settle for a lead of 488.
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