Tit was a day of hard, thirsty, weary graft at the Oval, and not just for that significant part of the crowd who offered their own celebration of the life of Queen Elizabeth II by drinking themselves into a state of stumbling oblivion under a raging sun. September. We all grieve in different ways.
But it was also a testing day of cricket in the middle. Not a great day, or a day of high caliber, or a day to change the feel of two scrappy, solid teams playing a fever pitch of cricket.
But this was if not proper cricket, then semi-proper cricket as England bowled hard and dry in an extended afternoon session, finding resistance in South Africa’s middle order, before pushing back in their innings and feeling themselves bending.
It seemed important to England’s team-building ambitions, and indeed to the captain himself, that Ben Stokes should be the one to make the difference with the ball.
It’s hard to know the realities of Rob Key’s role as England cricket’s ‘managing director’, a delightfully important job that has an element of dress, an element of the plastic fireman’s helmet.
He seems busy. Strategic talks have taken place. A sense of dress management elegance has permeated the place. And perhaps there is some decline in the way Stokes has developed as a cricketer.
As a pundit Key would often say that a bowling Stokes is one of the best cricketers in the world, while a non-bowling Stokes is a decent Test batsman. And Stokes stepped it up in mid-summer, started bowling with fury and skill and found a role, offering variety and jagged edge to that same seam and swing right-arm attack.
Who writes his scripts? Its documentary team, as it happens, with full content approval and a slick cross-platform media push. But Stokes provided the first moment here, bowling 8.4 overs off the reel before tea and producing another of those cinematic Spells of Pain.
No doubt this will be the conversation once again. Some cricketers play with a smile on their face. Stokes plays with a stinger, a bouncer. This is his personal mythology now, the swirling fibers, the dynamism of the dying infantryman, the strangely sensuous sweat-droplet grimace in slow motion. But that wasn’t all. What Stokes did with the old ball was highly technical stuff, swinging it away, driving it off the seam, all the high pressure lines and the constant changes in wrist-swing angle and bounce.
Marko Janssen may be all the world, he may have been clobbered on this tour with an oversized cream of the crop, but he’s also a real talent, not to mention the only piece of leverage left in the South African order. it looked like tea. Stokes took him with a delicious in-ducker, shaping from the arm, turning slowly in its flight and taking out his leg stump, the kind of montage-moment that seems to seal the day.
As strange as it sounds looking at the card, this came at the end of a period of resistance. It would be dishonest to call it high quality cricket.
The partnership between Wiaan Mulder and Khaya Zondo was more like an imitation of Test cricket, something half-remembered, a voice through the wall. But there was at least a sense of warmth and light here.
South Africa had gone to lunch at 70 for one. Dean Elgar and Jordan Pietersen left soon after. Then came an hour of something else, the Mulder and Zondo line.
The beat is often described in terms of fluency and tone, as something musical. That was more experimental, modern jazz, scratching, disturbing stuff. But he lasted 15 overs and added 25 runs as Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad bowled exceptionally well, making Zondo leap and pirouette, a man wielding a bat made entirely of edges, glances, leg edges. Zondo got off the mark with a pushed single off his 22nd ball. Mulder has played 30 internationals without getting past 36. For both men, undercooked, getting to compete at this level was an act of will.
With the lead over 80, Robinson took both. At which point: enter Stokes. He already had Jansen fishing fast like a champion angler before throwing his stumps, and then finished off the over after tea by pulling an elegantly considered steer to slip off Kagiso Rabada.
And Stokes the bowler really seems to be back. He has 15 wickets in 15 against India and South Africa this summer. More so, he has found a place, not just as the king of pain, the right arm, but the most versatile of England’s bowlers. He swings it like nobody’s business, bowls cutters and scissors, delivers a wave of body pressure. Stokes, who is 31, has 192 Test wickets now at 31.5. When he reaches 200, there will be only 15 English bowlers ahead of him on the all-time list, only seven with a better strike rate.
This is authentic all round stuff. The body tolerates this reduced monitoring, although you worry, vaguely, about the reported stress. How far can he go from here?
Broad is five years older, Anderson nine. They led England’s attack to a potential series-clinching win on Monday, as they have done all summer. But it was Stokes who held the knife in between.