Ben Stokes missed the start of this tour to make sure he could pick up the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award in person after a stellar 2019. Six days into 2020 the all-rounder looks as if he is in the mood to hang on to that crown for another year.
Following a record-equalling five catches in South Africa’s first innings, Stokes pulverised the home bowlers during a remarkable 75-minute cameo in which 72 runs flowed from his bat off 47 balls. Those who remark that this form of the game is boring or that it needs to be altered should have been at Newlands as, powered largely by Stokes’s brutal assault, England piled up 157 runs in a session comprising only 27 overs.
Forget the Hundred, this was sporting entertainment at its very best as Stokes put his foot to the floor, hammering seven fours and three sixes, to extend England’s lead well beyond 400. It was cricket on fast forward and there was no need for fireworks, cheerleaders or player drafts to jazz up the “product”.
Dominic Sibley’s grind on Sunday had set up this scenario for Stokes, who started the day on nought following the dismissal of the nightwatchman Dom Bess to the final ball of the previous evening. Sibley resumed on 85 but at one point, with Stokes reaching his half‑century in 34 balls and in exactly 50 minutes, it appeared as if he would be beaten to the century mark by his batting partner even though he was on 95 at the time.
Whatever it is about this ground, Stokes certainly likes it. Four years ago he hit the quickest Test double hundred by an England player – in 163 balls – and the second fastest by anyone when he bludgeoned 258. England drew that match on a flat pitch, yet the speed of Stokes’s scoring on this fourth morning may prove crucial in the final reckoning of this contest that Joe Root’s team will believe they can still win on the final day despite South Africa’s stubborn resistance.
What was so impressive about this particular contribution was how selfless it was. On 72 and with the landmark of a Test century in sight, many players would dial down the risk-reward ratio in terms of their shots. But not Stokes, England’s vice-captain, whose leadership position within this group was officially restored last summer following the incident in Bristol that led to him being stripped of the role in 2017.
By the time he holed out to the spin of Keshav Maharaj Stokes had a strike-rate of 153.19. Only two other England players have higher for a Test innings of 50 or more – Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff.
There was one moment of danger during this latest Stokes masterpiece, when he was dropped on 38 off Kagiso Rabada. But it was the 28-year-old’s most fluent batting display since that epic unbeaten 135 that almost singlehandedly helped England to chase down 359 against Australia at Headingley last summer. That, and his heroics in the World Cup final – where Stokes’s bat again proved the difference in an altogether different classic against New Zealand at Lord’s – meant he deservedly topped the vote for the the BBC award last month.
The early signs this year are that this is a man determined to continue defining contests with his sheer force of will. Over the weekend his five catches in South Africa’s first innings equalled the most by a fielder in Tests as he became the 12th player – not including wicketkeepers – to achieve the feat. This latest contribution with the bat, though, surpassed that and England might need him to conjure up something special with the ball on the final day at Newlands as they hunt for a series‑levelling victory.
However this series ends up, Stokes will again be his country’s key man across all formats this year. The England and Wales Cricket Board will hope he sprinkles some much-needed stardust on their new 100-ball competition when that starts in July. But for Stokes, a man who seemingly always rises to the big occasion, there is another global event he has the opportunity to dominate – the T20 World Cup in Australia this autumn. It is a trophy England would have won in India four years ago had Stokes not conceded four successive sixes to Carlos Brathwaite in the final over of the tournament in Kolkata.
This year, then, offers a chance of redemption for Stokes in that particular format. If his 2020 continues like this, do not count against him correcting that blot on his career and inspiring England to another memorable victory.