Jo Harman reports from The Oval, as a special knock from Ben Stokes and a dream spell from debutant Toby Roland-Jones put England firmly in control.
In The Oval’s hundredth Test match, Ben Stokes provided the People’s Ground with the perfect gift. This was the 169th Test century scored here and very few of that number will have captured the imagination of the crowd as Stokes’ did today.
As South Africa slumped to 126-8 in reply, with Toby Roland-Jones running riot on debut, it became increasingly apparent just what a fine innings it was.
England’s talisman came into this match in a bit of a temper, bristling at what he described as “very, very unfair” criticism of the batting performance at Trent Bridge. He acknowledged that England had adapted poorly to the match situation but felt that the team’s commitment had been called into question, and that was something he wouldn’t stand for. “It’s almost like people are saying that we don’t have the desire or the fight to play for England,” he said.
In truth, it was much ado about not very much. Michael Vaughan’s suggestion that England’s batting showed a “lack of respect” for Test cricket was the kind of throwaway, headline-grabbing line of which we’ve become accustomed from the ex-England skipper and, as is the way, it received more coverage than it deserved. His protégé’s reaction didn’t really help matters. Joe Root will reflect that he should have shouldered arms and let that loose delivery pass harmlessly by.
Nonetheless, the capitulation at Trent Bridge and subsequent criticism seems to have provoked a reaction. In this match England’s batsmen have applied themselves impressively against the best pace attack in the world on a pitch offering plenty.
Alastair Cook led the way yesterday but when he was dismissed in the fifth over of the morning for a 10th time in Test cricket by Morne Morkel, falling 12 short of a century, England’s innings hung in the balance at 183-5. Stokes seized control, playing with controlled aggression to bat England into a commanding position in what was arguably his most accomplished Test innings yet.
This was Stokes’ fifth Test century, and he is already compiling a special collection. His centuries at Perth (pulling Johnson off his eyebrows on a pitch of cut glass), Lord’s (the fastest ever at HQ) and Newlands (just ridiculous), rank as three of the most memorable of the modern era by an English batsman. For its skill and match awareness, his latest innings should sit alongside them.
Stokes brought up his half-century in brisk time, just 72 deliveries, but hardly took a risk in doing so. Only the stroke that brought up his fifty – a mistimed pull which narrowly evaded mid-on – gave cause for concern.
Patient against Morkel and Philander in the opening overs of the day, he used the introduction of Chris Morris to transfer the pressure back on to South Africa, hitting three boundaries in the first over of his spell. When Jonny Bairstow fell to the second new ball after a momentum-shifting stand of 75 in 17 overs, Stokes again took his foot off the gas, biding his time for easier offerings.
It wasn’t until Roland-Jones was dismissed for a free-flowing 25 that Stokes moved into top gear, dispatching Keshav Maharaj for four sixes in the space of six deliveries, the third of which brought up his hundred. Faf du Plessis may reflect his left-arm spinner was not the wisest option with Stokes on the charge.
Stokes was the last man out, caught on the boundary, having taken England to 353. It was a perfectly judged innings and a capacity crowd at The Oval lapped it up. This ground has witnessed more than its fair share of sensational feats over the years, and there is perhaps no better arena in the world to enjoy them.
Earlier in the day Graeme Smith had said on commentary that if England reached 350 they would be in the driving seat. He could see how challenging this pitch is, particularly with the clouds above settling in.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad initially struggled to capitalise on the favourable conditions and Root whipped the former out of the attack just three overs into his spell, throwing the ball to Roland-Jones shortly before tea. The Middlesex seamer has had to wait patiently for his chance after taking hatfuls of county wickets for several seasons and he grasped his opportunity by tearing through South Africa’s top order, taking four wickets in the space of 24 balls.
Bowling at around 82-83mph and nibbling the ball both ways off the seam, it was a spell reminiscent of his boss and mentor Angus Fraser in his pomp; only the smile was appreciably broader upon taking a wicket. The pick of the bunch was the prize scalp of Hashim Amla, who was undone by a rising snorter which flicked the glove on its way through to Bairstow.
Temba Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada stemmed the flow of wickets with an eighth-wicket stand of 53 but Stuart Broad removed the latter with peach of a delivery, leaving South Africa trailing by 227 runs with two wickets remaining. To make matters worse for the Proteas, one of those is Vernon Philander, who spent the afternoon in hospital with a stomach complaint. Root may well have a call to make tomorrow on whether to enforce the follow on. Whatever he decides, thanks to Stokes and Roland-Jones this match is there for the taking.