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Ben Stokes scripts his moment before ceding centre stage to Ben Foakes

England wicketkeeper follows his captain's lead to play significant innings

Ben Stokes celebrates his 12th Test hundred  •  AFP/Getty Images

Ben Stokes celebrates his 12th Test hundred  •  AFP/Getty Images

A first hundred as captain for Ben Stokes on the day his documentary comes out? Who writes his press releases?
Dean Elgar said he wouldn't be watching Ben Stokes: Phoenix From the Ashes on Friday evening, though did suggest if Stokes sent him a screener link ahead of time he might dip in. But after watching his opposite number position himself as the focal point for three hours and 38 minutes in front of a sold-out Emirates Old Trafford, why would he subject himself to an hour and 44 more? For those that are keen, this 12th career century was a welcome spoiler. It all works out in the end.
It will do for England, too, at least in this Test. Stokes arrived to the crease after the dismissal of Jonny Bairstow, wings clipped on 49 when he was close to take-off. England trailed by just 17 with six wickets in hand. Off the back of just how badly they crumbled in the Lord's Test - they lost all 20 wickets inside 83 overs - there were no guarantees. By the time Stokes departed, 103 from 163, the hosts were 169 ahead.
There were glorious straight drives on the charge alongside back- and front-foot defences. Hot steps down the pitch off both spinners - two of his three sixes among nine boundaries - sprinkled around the cold of 107 dot balls. He collapsed to the floor when his knee gave way just after midday, with just 16 to his name, and then went on to scamper ones and twos. The half-century took 101 deliveries, the second-half just 57.
It was, in every dissectible way, an innings of necessary contradictions. The day before this second Test got underway, when queried about whether England's best hopes of squaring the series 1-1 was for Stokes to chill his beans, he spoke of perhaps mellowing some time down the line, when he felt an ethos of expression and selflessness had been coopted by his fellow batters in their own unique ways. Perhaps the biggest example of practising what he preached, of putting the team at the forefront of everything he does, came when he turned to look for two from his 158th ball after Kagiso Rabada had shinned a straight drive into square leg. The single completed had already taken him to three figures.
There is an underlying flaw to this "follow the leader" shtick Stokes and Brendon McCullum have installed, especially when it comes to the batting. Batters are creatures of habit, and generally set in their ways once they reach their mid-to-late 20s, which is most of this team beyond the established trio of Stokes, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. And while the rest are finding their own ways of being more demonstrative, one man has been quietly struggling to work out who he is meant to be in this England side and, by extension, what exactly about this new persona he needs to express.
But the influence of the "leader" was abundantly clear for the man playing a version of himself. Ben Foakes, Essex-honed, Surrey refined, veritable No. 5, came in at No. 7 and shared a match-turning partnership of 173 with Stokes. Then when the skipper was sent on his way, Foakes took it upon himself to be the leading man among the tailenders and pocketed 113 unbeaten runs. Finally, 29 innings from a century on debut back in November 2018 against Sri Lanka, he had another. No question this one was far more nourishing for the soul.
With all due respect to Foakes, it is unlikely he'll ever command the big screen in the way his partner for 324 deliveries in the guts of this day has. But beyond the movie star looks, there's a far more relatable, everyday uncertainty about what Foakes has been contending with this summer.
In an environment where no one is under pressure, Foakes has perhaps been under the most. Alex Lees and Zak Crawley have been fairly well-insulated, with plenty of dressing room encouragement to drown out the outside noise. Much of Foakes' uncertainty has been internal.
The summer started clear enough: backed as the No. 1 keeper for the first time in his career and given scope to fashion the No. 7 spot as his own. He was there at the end of the Lord's victory against New Zealand with an unbeaten 32, then again at Trent Bridge with 12 not out to go with 56 in the first innings.
Just as things were looking rosier, a bout of Covid-19 resulted in him being pulled out midway through the third Test against New Zealand at Headingley, though not before registering a maiden Test duck. His symptoms were bad enough to mean he was unable to take his spot in the XI against India at Edgbaston. He didn't stick around, immediately down south on the train the night before the Test started. If the Covid hadn't made him feel terrible enough, he'd have every right to feel a bit sick at the prospect of Sam Billings taking his spot given Billings is a more natural fit at No. 7 and far more familiar to McCullum thanks to the franchise circuit.
That sense will have been exacerbated after a poor showing at Lord's, undone twice by Anrich Nortje for 6 and then duck number two. Especially as he found himself privately wondering if he would ever crack being a good fit in this group. Not so much through personality, but purpose. Despite his high-calibre keeping, he was a little anxious at the fact England would not have a wicketkeeping coach for this series. McCullum put him at ease, praising his work so far and politely reminding him he did a bit of keeping in his day.
When he goes to bed on Friday night, Foakes will feel more settled. Far more at ease that not only does he have a score of note, but the manner in which it was achieved dovetailed perfectly with Stokes and, more pertinently, the situation (which included seeing off 25 deliveries from Nortje). And maybe he'll even be comforted by the fact he played as himself.
In a line-up where he is the breaker between the heavyweight bashers and the chancers, he needs to be the sensible one. The bass player maintaining a consistent chord. The volunteer passing around the collection tray while Stokes is at the front preaching the word of Bazball. Tim Canterbury frowning into the fourth wall when things are a little off, knowing he'll have to tell Gareth not to take Bertie.
While Stokes charged spin, Foakes got on top of the bounce and smothered into the leg side. For every three full-blooded carves from the skipper, there was one caress by the self-diagnosed pretender. Foakes' statistical breakdown here - the fifty off 116 deliveries, the century some ninety later - was at odds with Stokes'. However, he did press the accelerator a little harder when the latter had departed. His 45 from the 95 accrued with Stuart Broad, Ollie Robinson and Jack Leach came off 53 deliveries, leading to a declaration on 415 for 9 to give England nine overs of South Africa's openers at the end of day two.
That final portion of that knock will have been the most heartening for the management group. Foakes admitted in an interview with ESPNcricinfo earlier this summer that his limited experience working with the tail meant a need to learn by doing. Well, he has learned pretty quickly.
After South Africa's openers survived the mini-session, Stokes forcibly pushed a bashful Foakes out ahead to lead the team off. And with that, all other metaphors were deemed obsolete.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo