At Cape Town, January 2-6, 2016. Drawn. Toss: England. Test debut: C. H. Morris.
There were only a few periods when an outright result looked even remotely on the cards - most distinctly on the final day, when England stumbled as they sought to bat out time. But this was a Test that will burn brightly in the memory of anyone who witnessed it. It produced four hundreds, of which two were doubles, and one, by Temba Bavuma - the first for South Africa by a member of the majority black African population in 127 years of Test cricket - resonated beyond the context of the match itself.
No sooner had the game been called off with 31 overs remaining after a halt for rain,than Cricket South Africa announced Amla was stepping down as Test captain, and handing the reins to de Villiers. As Amla had just batted 11 and three-quarter hours for 201 to keep his side in the contest, it could hardly be said the job was affecting his form in this match, even if this was his first score over 43 in 12 Test innings. But it was clearly a role he found uncomfortable. He felt someone else could do better.
The timing may have been a surprise; the sentiment was not.To what extent Amla's mind had been made up by the innings Stokes played on the first two days, in scorching heat, is unclear. But his murderous assault on South Africa's bowlers, which eventually brought him 258 runs from 198 balls, including 30 fours and 11 sixes, would have driven many captains to distraction. Even seasoned observers were left scratching their heads.If Amla had a plan for either Stokes or Bairstow, who assisted him in a Test-record sixth-wicket partnership of 399 in 346 balls, the fastest above 200 in Tests, it was not altogether divinable.
Five or six men were pinned to the boundary, apparently more in hope than expectation of doing anything useful, while an inexperienced attack, missing the injured Dale Steyn and Kyle Abbott, ploughed on into a storm of unprecedented severity. By moving from 74 to 204 on the second morning, Stokes scored more runs in apre-lunch Test session than anyone; his double-century, from 163 balls, was the second-fastest in Tests, and his 250, from 196, the fastest. His 258, more than twice his previous best, was the highest for England against South Africa (beating 243 by Eddie Paynter at Durban in 1938-39), and also the highest by a Test No. 6.
If Stokes ultimately battered South Africa into submission, it was only after a tooth-and-claw battle for supremacy on the first evening, when England were in danger of squandering a golden opportunity to bat them out of the game. Cook, having usefully won his first toss in five, fell to a blinding catch by the newcomer Chris Morris at third slip,while Hales, after applying himself well for a maiden Test fifty, also edged into the slips on a pitch with decent bounce. The potential killer was losing the adhesive Compton, then Taylor, to successive deliveries from the waspish Rabada either side of tea. Stokes survived the hat-trick ball, and also a referral for caught behind on 11.
But, when Root was out straight after reaching a typically accomplished half-century, to give Morris a maiden wicket, much work remained.Step forward England's two redheads. Stokes and Bairstow not only held firm, but forged on against a flagging four-man attack. The first five overs of the second new ball yielded 46, with Morris - curiously tried ahead of Morkel - conceding seven fours in 13 deliveries, six of them hit by Stokes. By stumps England were 317 for five and on top.
It was a position speedily strengthened next morning when, despite Morkel's restoration as pack leader, another 60 were plundered off the first six overs - Stokes hitting nine fours,and Bairstow two. Then, after a brief lull, another violent wave brought 93 runs in nine: Morkel was picked off at the end of his first spell of the day, before Rabada - having leaked 20 runs in three overs in his first - was put to the sword in his second. Piedt, the off-spinner, was savaged from the outset, conceding 42 in four overs to Stokes alone,including five sixes. Stokes took eight balls to move from 197 to his double-century, yet a session of 25 overs had brought him 130, and England 196.
At lunch on the second day,they were a scarcely plausible 513 for five. Bairstow reached the break on 95, level with his best in 36 previous Test innings. He spent 22 balls picking off the remaining five runs but, after he cut van Zyl for four, the emotion and relief poured out, a look to the skies conjuring thoughts of his late father,David, and his grandfather, who had died in the summer; his mother, Janet, and sister,Becky, were in the crowd. A cricketer sometimes too tense to give his best for England had never batted so serenely, remarkable given the carnage Stokes was inflicting.
The pair went into overdrive again: 80 came off what proved to be the last five overs and five balls of the innings. Stokes, too hot to run, was now trying to hit everything for six, which - facing Rabada - was how he perished: six, six, out, though only after de Villiers shelled a simple catch off a miscue, then hit the stumps as Stokes, assuming the worst, did indeed not run. Two balls later Bairstow reached 150, and Cook called an end to the mayhem at 629 for six. England had made their biggest score under his captaincy.By scoring so fast, they had created plenty of time to dismiss South Africa twice. As they were to discover, they had also created time for their own position to become vulnerable - although, had they taken their chances, South Africa would probably have been batting on the final day.In this regard, the self-inflicted early run-out of van Zyl was misleading, as was Compton's smart catch to remove Elgar off a looping edge induced by the omnipresent Stokes. Instead, Root's failure to hold a routine chance at gully from de Villiers, on five,was a sign of things to come.
Enjoying several narrow escapes, de Villiers, who passed 8,000 runs in his 104th Test, was unconvincing but, by surviving 69 overs and putting on 183 with Amla, he did much to thwart England's charge.The third day could not have been more different from the second, as South Africa painstakingly strove for safety. They added only 212 in 87 overs, but lost just one wicket, though it could have been more. Anderson, at slip, repaid Root for dropping de Villiers by missing Amla, on 76, off Root's bowling. Amla was then missed off Finn on 120 byCompton, who seemed late sighting the ball at point. England's think tank, running near empty, briefly threw the ball to Hales. The Amla-de Villiers stand was South Africa's first century partnership since 2014, but another came along immediately, as Amla and du Plessis put on 171, batting into the fourth afternoon.
Three wickets in five overs for Broad and Anderson with the third new ball revived England, who still led by 180 when Broad bounced out de Kock, who had returned to take the gloves from de Villiers. But, in his first Test innings, Morris - hit on the helmet third ball by Broad - rallied to help Bavumare store equanimity in the home dressing-room.Despite being under pressure after his failures at Durban, the diminutive Bavuma batted beautifully: organised, yet adventurous when the chance arose, he struck 11 fours in his first 50, and - after surviving a chance on 77 to Bairstow off Broad - 16 in a hundred that detained him only 141 balls. Stokes directed a few choice words at him, but was among the first to congratulate Bavuma as multicultural South Africa savoured a special moment.Broad's frustration at Bairstow's drop, meanwhile, had led to him kicking the ground and being fined 30% of his fee for exchanging words with umpire Aleem Dar. He soon had more to ruck about as Morris, who had already survived a return chance to Finn on 22,was put down by Root on 57.
When Amla imaginatively declared, two runs behind, shortly before stumps on the fourth day, South Africa had recorded their biggest home score against England, beating 572 for seven, another famous rearguard, at Durban in 1999-2000; England, meanwhile, had not spent so many overs in the field in one innings since 1987, against Pakistan at The Oval. For only the fifth time, both sides had reached 600 in their first innings.Cook and Hales negotiated six overs but, when both went early in successive overs next morning - Cook strangled down the leg side, Hales to another superb slip catch by Morris- England were the only side who could lose. Compton reacted to the pressure by going into his shell, Root and Stokes by scoring at around a run a ball. Taylor, caught at short leg after almost two hours of resistance, gave Piedt his third wicket to leave a nervy England six down. But Bairstow - who narrowly escaped a stumping off Elgar, with the lead 149 and a potential 41 overs remaining - and Ali were looking comfortable before the rain came.
Man of the Match:B. A. Stokes.
Simon Wilde is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times