Image Credits: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Tuesday evening in Cape Town will become a fabled day for travelling England fans, Barmy Army et al. This was a victory built by an England team of multi-generations. Set up by players at the bookends of their international career – sealed by their champion all-rounder at the peak of his powers.
Jimmy Anderson is 37, has bowled more balls in test cricket than any quick bowler ever, and made his international debut before Blair followed the US into Iraq. Anderson took his 28th five wicket haul in the first innings, no Englishman has more. It was one to savour, too. Metronomic and relentless with his line and length and extracting the most of the little movement available. It was his second innings dismissal of Zubayr Hamza that was perhaps the play of the game. Late on day 4, with a steady partnership blunting England, it was Anderson who broke it. The over before the wicket was the set-up, a medley of late reverse in-swing challenging the stumps. First ball of the follow up over and from the same line the ball did not swing back in as Hamza hoped, instead it held its line, forcing the batsman to push at it and finding the outside edge. When Anderson does eventually retire, watchers will remember these as the good old days – unquestionably now he’s England’s greatest.
England’s side included four players 22 or under and all contributed to this win. It was Ollie Pope who rescued an error strewn first innings to post a competitive total of 269 with 61 not out. Dom Bess surprised many with the control he offered to captain Joe Root, allowing him to rotate the seamers from the other end. Sam Curran, still 21, took crucial wickets again.
Dom Sibley’s hundred was a lesson in how to open the batting in test match cricket. England’s second innings began with a small first innings advantage but the pitch was still untrustworthy and the game in the balance. Over an 8-hour vigil, spanning 311 balls, Sibley crafted a score of 133 not out. Never straying from his game plan, never giving a chance, knowing every ball faced took the game away from South Africa’s reach. When Rory Burns eventually returns from injury, his partnership with Sibley may become the foundation of the test side’s future.
In a normal test win, Anderson or Sibley would likely have been man of the match. But England have one man for clutch moments and yet again, Joe Root’s “Golden Nugget” Ben Stokes stole the moment. A true all round performance. Five stunning catches in the first innings (no fielder has ever taken more). An audacious 72 off 47 balls in the second innings enabling an early declaration – crucial as it took well into the final hour to secure victory. This would be enough for most players, normal players. Ben Stokes is not normal. It is not normal to bowl quicker in the game’s final spell of the match than any of the rest. It is not normal to bowl for longer in that final spell than any of the rest.
By this point, England’s other bowlers had little left to give; Anderson had broken a rib whereas Curran and Broad had bowled themselves to exhaustion. Stokes wanted the ball and wouldn’t let it go until the game was won. Everyone watching could tell, and most of believed he’d do it too. He took three wickets for one run across 28 balls, but the scorebook rarely does Stokes justice. And that should be of no real surprise. Far too many players play for their own averages, not wanting to go for many runs, not wanting to risk their wicket. Stokes plays only for the team. He reads situations better than anyone in the world and tailors his approach to them, this winning performance will no doubt please Stokes more than at the same ground four years ago where his quite ridiculous 258 ended in a drawn test.
Stats don’t tell you much about when you took your wickets, or what they brought. They also can’t measure Ben Stokes anymore. They can’t measure how he lifts other players around him, the way he makes crowds roar. They tell you nothing of how loved his is by his captain. What’s more they can’t capture the passion he plays with. For all this, the human eye is the greatest judge. What it sees is that Stokes is the soul of English cricket.
In a week where debate raged around the future of five day test cricket, this test owned the moment in what Michael Atherton called “a glorious celebration” of five day tests. South Africa began the final session – the 15th of the test match – with an even chance of escaping with a draw until in the final hour of play England were able to seal victory, right at the death. England don’t do easy victories anymore. In the last 5 years, many have lamented the test side, wishing for the consistency of Strauss’ era to return, but maybe we are missing the point. England step to a different beat and make test cricket watchable, their performances create drama, bring out emotion and captivate crowds. For five days in Cape Town, English fans made South Africa home and sang. Just as Stokes never stopped on the field, the Barmy Army never stopped off it. England have had better test sides but none have moved like this one.