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Match Analysis

Ben Stokes rouses slumbering Lord's to keep England believing

South Africa ignore the dramatics but captain's heroic shift keeps home ambitions alive

Ben Stokes grabbed two quick wickets to get England back in contention  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Ben Stokes grabbed two quick wickets to get England back in contention  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Lord's early in a Test match has never been a ground conducive to cheering. That was especially true on day two against South Africa.
The first innings was done and dusted within the first 13 of the scheduled 98 overs, as England's final four wickets fell for just 49 more runs. A small-fry first innings of 165 usurped soon after tea by South Africa without having to overexert themselves. For the most part, play hummed along as background music to those of an English persuasion in the stands, easing them steadily towards Thursday night and the start of the pre-kend. Paying too much attention to on-field matters risked killing the buzz.
There were, however, two moments when a crowd usually distracted by the peripheral greens of this ground were squarely focused on the main one in the middle, and in their best voice. The first was on 41 overs - South Africa just 16 runs behind for the loss of two wickets.
Jack Leach was stood at the top of his mark at the Nursery End, preparing to bowl. His previous Test appearance against India at Edgbaston had been far from ideal: 1 for 99 in 21 overs. The period since even less so: just 68 overs and one wicket under his belt for Somerset in the County Championship and time warming the bench in the men's Hundred for Birmingham Phoenix.
The second came around 15 overs later. Ben Stokes had the ball in hand at the Pavilion End, raking the ground beneath his feet with Kyle Verreyne in his sights. The skipper had taken out Sarel Erwee and Rassie van der Dussen in a spell that had shades of the Stokes of old: sharp, late movement, occasionally short. And as he stomped in towards Verreyne, the tourists now five down with Leach accounting for Aiden Markram, and just 27 ahead, the crowd crescendoed with him and let out a roar as a delivery into the ribs had South Africa's wicketkeeper turning away to square leg to cope with the blow.
The interest and complexion of the match had shifted dramatically. And it felt apt that Stokes and Leach had done the shifting together. The empowerer and the empowered in tandem, both primarily last resorts here. Stuart Broad revealed at stumps that Stokes had to be convinced to take his less-preferred end because of the turn Leach was getting.
And above all else, his ceding to Leach, who he backed with compact, attacking fields, while getting almost comically creative with his own - at one point he had a leg side of bat-pad, leg slip, wide mid on, fine leg (up), fine leg (back), deep square and a position you could only really describe as "short cow" - there was a compulsion to believe in what England were doing. Because, at the moment, everyone on the field and in the home dressing believed in what they were doing. The morning and early afternoon of farce and toil, all broadly well-intentioned, corrected by sheer force of spirit.
By the end of play, however, there was no time for whimsy on courage. South Africa's lead was now 124 for seven down, Marco Jansen and Keshav Maharaj turning the match their way once more with with a 72-run stand. Leach and Stokes were back on to see out the day, visibly more weathered and audibly less backed. The crowds had withered, just like the belief. The spirit ever-willing, characterised by Stokes chasing down a shot through mid-off from his own bowling, dropping to the floor as he spun and hurled in an instant. Brendon McCullum instilled in them that these are the things that count. But it was hard to see the upside as Stokes laboured to his feet with the help of Broad, who valiantly chased from mid-on knowing he was going to come second.
"He carries an inspirational style about what he does," said Broad of his captain, who was rewarded with a third dismissal when Maharaj clothed a short ball to Matt Potts at midwicket. "I thought it was Stokes who bought great theatre in that sort of middle period after tea."
Truth be told, even the action either side of that "middle period" held the attention. Stokes maintained a sense that something could happen with his decisions, even when sunny, relatively sedate conditions suggested otherwise. As well as the funky fields were more regulation cordons, either packed with four slips and a gully or five bunched up together next to Ben Foakes. The issue, though, was South Africa, barring a couple of missteps, largely kept their focus on their steadfast methods of patience rather than the concocted dramatics around them. Beyond the spell of three wickets lost to Leach and Stokes in 11.2 overs for 32.
The new ball and the second innings of this Test is just three overs and three wickets away, respectively. The former needs to bring the latter sooner rather than later if Broad is to get his wish of a first-innings deficit of 150 that he reckoned could be seen off by one solid partnership. Then it will be down to the rest to provide England with a target to defend. Broad still believes.
"We've proved this summer that anything can happen and we feel really positive in the change room that we've got ourselves back in the game because it was 130 for one."
Yet again, England are looking for another hall-of-fame performance in the first match of this series. We will see if they are fifth-time lucky.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo