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Match Analysis

South Africa's survival guide goes out the window as Ben Stokes shows what it takes to seize the day

Callow batting no match for captain in a hurry to wrap up England's summer

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
11-Sep-2022
Ben Stokes bagged Kagiso Rabada straight after tea, England vs South Africa, 3rd Test, 4th day, The Oval, September 11, 2022

Ben Stokes struck either side of tea to derail South Africa's hopes of a defendable total  •  AFP/Getty Images

You've got to hand it to England: this Bazball thing sort of works. Even if you don't like it, or what it's called, and you feel it undermines the pillars of patience and pragmatism on which Test cricket is built, you have to admit that it gets things moving. For example, if you had any concerns about this match being drawn when it was reduced to three days, you needn't have.
But for the late-summer fading light, it would have been done in two days and, even if that isn't the best advertisement for Test cricket, it is a nod to entertainment, and Ben Stokes' stated aim to put "bums on seats". He and his team have delivered on that front.
The capacity crowd got almost everything they paid for over the last two days, except the opportunity to see England raise the series trophy - and they noisily objected to the umpires taking the players off for bad light at 6.40pm. But they would not have had any other complaints, especially not with Stokes. He has emerged after this summer as the captain both colleagues and his crowds can get behind, because he actually does, as his opposition captain Dean Elgar says, "walk the talk".
With the bat, Stokes changed the tone of the series at Old Trafford, with his century and partnership with Ben Foakes. And with the ball, Stokes has taken on the enforcer role despite, or perhaps even because of, his knee problem, which seems to have persuaded him to bowl longer spells than may be sensible to avoid not bowling at all, in case the knee seizes up in a shorter spell and takes him out of the attack. That's the Stokes that showed up on the second day.
South Africa had chipped away at the rock of certain defeat and created a small crack of a comeback through Elgar and Sarel Erwee. It was some of the nerviest and ugliest batting that we've seen - Elgar survived an Ollie Robinson delivery that seamed past the shoulder of his bat as he tried to get forward, before hacking at a short, wide delivery from James Anderson to send it over the slip cordon for four - but the pair erased the deficit and posted South Africa's fourth half-century stand of the series.
Nothing came easily but they were using up overs and time, and England don't play like that. So, in the 16th over, Stokes brought himself on and with his third delivery, drew Erwee forward, just as others in the attack had done, but found late swing, just as others had not done. He found the edge too, and Joe Root took a fine catch at first slip to start South Africa's slide.
That's swag. That's superstar quality. All South Africa have is stardust.
As their captain, and also their most successful batter, Elgar's actions unfortunately had the opposite effect on proceedings. Elgar was walking for an lbw appeal against Stuart Broad even before Nitin Menon raised his finger, and he didn't once consider a review. Broad had earlier appealed twice against Elgar in that over, which may have rattled him, but in failing even to get a second opinion from his partner, Elgar gave the impression that he just wanted to get out of the firing line, rather than run towards the danger. And that was a mistake.
Replays later showed the ball was missing Elgar's leg stump significantly, and that he would have survived. For how long, who knows? But South Africa went on to lose their next nine wickets for 86 runs, and set England a total that they will reach in almost T20-like speed.
South Africa will have to blame a lack of first-innings runs for their defeats in the second and third Tests, but they will also look at other missed opportunities, such as the chance to build more of a lead in this match. After Elgar's dismissal, Khaya Zondo and Wiaan Mulder (promoted above Kyle Verreynne, who has not produced enough in this series) formed a steady but very slow partnership. They faced 87 balls for the 25 runs they contributed, allowing pressure to build, especially when that man Stokes brought himself back at one end.
In a marathon 11-over spell, Stokes constantly reminded South Africa of the threat he can pose. He made the ball dance this way and that as Mulder tried to navigate around his two left feet, while he stalked Zondo's outside edge relentlessly. Robinson removed both men, but it was Stokes who took out South Africa's best middle-order batter of the series, Marco Jansen, which ended any real opportunity for South Africa to set a challenging target. Stokes should have had Jansen in his eighth over when he edged an outswinger to fourth slip, only to be called for a no-ball. But he got him in his ninth instead, bowled by the inswinger.
Superstar quality, when all South Africa have is stardust. And they know it.
"I was a bit star-struck in the beginning," Keegan Petersen said, a few days before the Test match, when he spoke about the time he spent with Stokes at Durham earlier this season. "He is a great guy. He is a good guy to have in the change-room, on the field and off, and he is a good human being. I am only new to international cricket so to walk into a change-room with one of the best allrounders in the world, it was nice."
It was also a first-hand illustration of the gulf between South Africa and Stokes. In their first match together, Petersen scored the first fifty of his county career. It took him almost two-and-a-half hours and he faced 118 balls. By the time Stokes came in to bat, Durham were 360 for 4 and the foundation was laid for him to Ben-ball the match beyond Worcestershire. Stokes smashed 161 off 88 balls at a strike of almost 200, and he did it in just over two hours. Petersen was right to feel dazed.
The next time they played together, Petersen scored 78 off 123 balls in 193 minutes. Stokes scored 82 off 110 balls in 150 minutes. Even in their final match together, when Petersen outscored Stokes with 48 and 5 against Middlesex, Stokes 19-ball 15 only took him a quarter of an hour to score. England were two weeks away from their first Test of the summer, so perhaps Stokes was prepping for that.
In the dissection of this series, we will eventually talk about the disappointing lack of application shown by batters on both sides and wonder if we should blame T20, fast-food, the Hundred or climate change. But we will have to remember that the contest was fought between two fine bowling attacks. England have the two most successful seam-bowling wicket-takers in the history of Test cricket in their XI, while South Africa possess a pace attack which, if they played more Test cricket, might be able to climb the ladder and challenge for those positions. Both sides have some fragility in their batting but England's does not have a lot of fear.
Though South Africa believe they are getting closer to being properly competitive as a Test team, they can still look clueless on the days when it all goes wrong. For all their pre-series jokes about tequila, and their semi-serious remarks about not labelling their approach, this series has shown that they don't really have one. Their Test-cricket blueprint is to scrape together runs and hope it's enough for the bowlers to work with. That's not a style of play; it's a survival guide. And against Bazball, that's not an option.
"At no stage is there any talk about draws or surviving," Broad confirmed at the close. Bazball is about being emphatic, and England are about to win the match and the series in exactly that fashion.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent