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Ben Stokes steals the crucial scenes in another box-office display of bravado

Commanding in every sense of the word, captain has never been more at ease with himself

Ben Stokes is a happy captain after Stuart Broad sent Aiden Markram packing  •  AFP/Getty Images

Ben Stokes is a happy captain after Stuart Broad sent Aiden Markram packing  •  AFP/Getty Images

It has been quite the week for Ben Stokes.
The premiere of his documentary was on Monday, before preparations for the second Test with South Africa began on Tuesday. He reiterated he was a captain who would never ask his team to do something he wouldn't on Wednesday. After marshalling the field expertly on Thursday, he scored his first hundred as Test captain on Friday, then produced a remarkable 2 for 30 in a 14-over spell - his third longest at this level - and inspired an innings and 85-run win on Saturday. Now, with a series squared 1-1 inside three days, ensuring the decider at the Kia Oval is almost two weeks away, he and England can chill on Sunday.
Was this the best of England's five wins, with Stokes and Brendon McCullum calling the shots this summer? It's hard to say, given the emotions when you chase sizeable scores, which this lot evoked four times in the space of six weeks. However, off the back of the innings humiliation at Lord's last week, perhaps this win, so emphatic it ranks as "retaliation" rather than response, puts it ahead of the rest.
It was a performance of character - specifically that of the man at the centre of it all. Which isn't easy to discuss with the man himself, given that Stokes is one of the most irritating cricketers to champion because of how reluctant he is to hear it. Despite deserving his player-of-the-match award, for 103 and match figures of 4 for 47, he attempted to palm it off to Ben Foakes for his unbeaten 113.
There was a brief slip to Stokes' mask when discussing the turning point of the day (if not the match itself, which was never less than in England's control). Armed with a ball that was 65 overs old and not doing very much, he fashioned two dismissals out of almost nothing. And off the back of a commanding presence on the big screen, he admitted to an insatiable desire to inject drama into proceedings on the big field. To always want to be the leading man.
"When you are bowling with the older ball when nothing is really happening, you have to create your own energies and own theatre around that," Stokes said. "It's something I've done over my career with the older ball, just to try and run in and hit the wicket as hard as I can and try and make something out of nothing. Then let the new-ball bowlers take the rewards at the end."
The quality of Stokes' spell reaffirmed the sense that his primary role as a bouncer-merchant is a bit reductive, like hiring Adele and asking her to whistle. By now, we know full well he is the only quick in the current team who can summon the pace and necessary bounce to make bouncers worthwhile. But he is objectively a better bowler when he's pitching into the other half, on good and full lengths where his late movement, whether conventional or reverse, can do its thing. So much so that you wonder if somewhere out in the multiverse there is a "Ben Stokes, opening bowler" with more than just the four five-wicket hauls belonging to this version.
That was reinforced on either side of a tea break that acted as a neat divide between the two iterations of the same seamer. First, a spell of six overs right to the end of the second session, in which his primary aim was to test the nerves of Keegan Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen, who were exuding a calm no Proteas had experienced since Dean Elgar's fateful decision on Thursday to bat first. Of the 36 deliveries sent down at an average pace of 81.87mph, 23 were short or short of a good length.
Barring the unconventional field settings and the theatrics of a crowd crescendoing with every charge to the crease, it was a docile conclusion to the session. And as England re-emerged after tea, it seemed this match was heading into a fourth day. Stokes, however, had recalibrated. In went two slips, as part of a broadly run-of-the-mill field for a fuller approach and, nine balls into the evening, both set batters were gone.
After jarring the fractured index finger of van der Dussen's top hand with a delivery that hit high on the bat, a fuller delivery arching away from the right-hander finally enticed him into a flirt after almost three hours of celibacy. The ecstasy of ending a belligerent 42.5-over stand - South Africa's longest of the match, in which the 87 runs were almost irrelevant - was clear on the faces of everyone in the field. Not least the man responsible, who was tearing away towards Old Trafford's party stand, with an open invitation to jump in and join them. Stokes's team-mates got to him before he could get a round in.
The delivery to Petersen was the kind that parents of batters talk of to get them to eat their greens. Somehow, on a surface that hadn't shown any demons in the 29 wicketless overs of the previous session, Stokes got one to spit off a length and almost rip Petersen's gloves clean off.
As it happens, it was Stokes bowling to Petersen before tea that led to this change of tack. "By fluke really," Stokes explained afterwards. "I bowled two bouncers in the over, but because Keegan's quite small, I had to pitch it up and it actually started to swing in the air and that is when we changed our plans, because I've always thought when the ball starts reverse-swinging that's when I feel I'm at my best." He was right, of course.
In his next 48 balls, before he handed the Brian Statham End back to Ollie Robinson and the new ball, Stokes bowled 23 full or length deliveries, with just three short. His average speed was 82.8mph, with the quickest clocking in at 85.6mph. His efforts battered a door which was hanging off its hinges by the time the shiny new Dukes ball came about. James Anderson and Robinson made light work of the tail, with 5 for 7 in 31 balls between them, making it an overall collapse of 7 for 38 from tea.
Might this also have been Stokes' best showing as a captain? Even as things went quiet in that middle session, with the game going nowhere, he remained at ease. He didn't chase the ball with his field settings; he backed his bowlers, not least the wicketless but uber-economical Jack Leach, with all the necessary catchers in close and the odd distraction in the batter's eyelines. Chucking Joe Root a ball just nine overs old to start the day was a little odd, mind, and he should have reviewed an edge behind off his bowling from van der Dussen eight balls before tea. But otherwise, it was an exhibition of canniness and nous from a man whose actions are often attributed to emotion and anger.
Is it maturity? Probably. Does it link in with the evolution of this England team? Almost certainly. One Test remains of what has been a heartening summer for English Test cricket. And perhaps the most encouraging aspect of all this, in a week where he laid out his pain and anxieties to the rest of the world, Stokes has never looked more comfortable in this job and his own skin.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo