There is something about Ben Stokes that sets him apart from the rest. While a close enough replica of Andrew Flintoff, Stokes is more to England now than Flintoff ever was. He is the more aggressive version of Jacques Kallis, lending balance and an aura of super stardom to this England line-up which has lacked that kind of attention since Kevin Pietersen.
World-class players are separated from ordinary mortals in how they choose the moment to stamp themselves in the game. Stokes had flown rather under the radar in the clash of these heavyweights in the first two Tests. However, with his team facing severe criticism over an extended break, Stokes made the step up and delivered when it mattered.
Bear in mind that his sensational, effortless, fluent fifth Test hundred had come on a wicket where Alastair Cook had struggled his way to 88.
Surprised? He had more in store for the fans today.
This wasn’t a typical Ben Stokes wham bam innings. If in January 2016, he looked like an exuberant youth with all the license in the World to ‘see ball, hit ball’ enroute a record breaking 258, the situation here screamed to settle in and then dominate.
That is exactly what Stokes did.
He left a number of balls outside his off-stump, not unleashing his blades for that full-blooded cover drive even when the invitation was sent multiple times by the Proteas bowlers. It is not easy for someone like Ben Stokes to restrain himself from attacking the ball when it is in his zone. The seamers teased and played around with him but he was content with the odd boundary and a couple of nudges as he displayed impeccable composure in the face of storm.
One loophole and this mighty South African attack would burst in like a gush of waves. Stokes knew that. He was in no mood to give South Africa a whisker of hope.
That said, early in his innings, with Cook gone and the quicker men on the prowl under overcast skies, England needed Stokes to put South Africa under pressure. He dug into their weaker bowlers, taking a special liking to Chris Morris as he dumped him all around the park with utter disdain. Three fours were clubbed off him as he and Bairstow evoked memories of their record breaking 399 run partnership at Newlands.
Faf du Plessis possibly sensed the same and threw Rabada at Bairstow the moment the new ball was available. The lanky seamer promptly responded by sending the wicket-keeper batsman back to the pavilion to end a 75 run partnership that had come in quick time.
Stokes soon slipped into a self-induced shell and barely scored for an extended period of timing. He was watchful of Rabada and Morkel and did not attempt anything rash until the skies had cleared and the sun was out.
Once Stokes was stuck with Anderson, he decided to go all out for that hundred and slammed Keshav Maharaj for three sixes in succession, the second of which got him to his fifth Test hundred. Stokes fell soon afterwards to Morne Morkel as the England innings folded for 353 but this would be one knock that Stokes would remember for a long, long time.
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) July 28, 2017
It wasn’t the sheer importance of the knock in the context of the game that stood out. It was the manner in which he dealt with the likes of Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Chris Morris. While he was watchful against Rabada and Morkel, aware of the problems his horizontal bat shots could pose against the duo’s extra bounce, he got stuck into Morris, bludgeoning him for three boundaries in an over.
Stokes had shown the maturity and understanding to realise that Morris was a confidence bowler and disrupting his rhythm in the absence of Vernon Philander, who was hospitalized with a bout of stomach bug, would put du Plessis’ calculations in trouble. It wasn’t a random display of brash aggression one would have expected from a hot headed Ben Stokes when he walked out to face Mitchell Johnson and co in his debut Ashes series. It was a more mature, evidently responsible Ben Stokes out in the middle. Yet, in between all his elderly outlook and gentlemanly cover drives, the childish Ben Stokes did not fail to entertain the crowd, a quality that would stand him in good stead because he is a superstar in the making, if not one already.