For the second successive Test match it was one-way traffic but this time England were the team driving it. South Africa had no answer to Ben Stokes, a player positively glowing with a sense of destiny, and now an enticing September decider at The Oval awaits.
This is something to be savoured at the end of an already memorable summer of Test cricket, not least with next year’s Ashes done by 31 July. Jimmy Anderson will turn 41 a day earlier and one would not bet against him being out on the park. England’s record-breaking seamer was one of the architects of this crushing victory by an innings and 85 runs.
But, ageless as Anderson looked, gliding his way to six wickets across the match as the tourists were finally bowled out for 179 on the third evening, one man stood head and shoulders above the rest: Stokes, fresh from going public about his continuing battle with depression and anxiety during the week, will never forget this match.
His name runs through the scorecard like words in a stick of rock, with two precious wickets as the tourists were rolled for 151 on day one followed by that commanding maiden Test century as captain. Not only did his 103 power England to 415 for nine declared – along with a fine unbeaten 113 from Ben Foakes – but there is half a chance that the control and poise he showed sees the term Bazball now melt away.
Stokes was not done there, however, once again bending the script to his will on the third and final evening when, following 40 overs of impressive defiance from Keegan Petersen (42) and Rassie van der Dussen (41) in response to the loss of three early wickets, he removed both set men in the space of six balls.
This burst of reverse swing, coming during an indefatigable 14-over spell either side of tea, sent Old Trafford delirious and fired up England’s charge to a 1-1 scoreline.
While Van der Dussen, battling the pain of a suspected broken finger, wafted wearily at a wide one, the removal of the compact Petersen was a snarling brute that took the shoulder of the bat. It left South Africa 151 for five in the 68th over – still 114 runs from making England bat again – and, though some further resistance followed, the arrival of the second new ball soon vaporised the Proteas’ lower order.
It took just two deliveries for Anderson to make it talk, the ill-selected Simon Harmer bowled with a beauty. Anderson and Ollie Robinson shared the final five, the latter completing figures of four for 43 and the rout itself when detonating Lungi Ngidi’s off stump. Stokes, his whites smeared with dirt and sweat when collecting the player of the match award, had pushed for Robinson’s recall and been vindicated.
There was little indication it would require the captain’s golden arm to break through during a giddy first hour in which England’s three frontline seamers all struck. South Africa had resumed on 23 for none – 241 runs in arrears – but subsided to 54 for three shortly after the first drinks break to raise thoughts for the first time of another three-day finish.
Stokes had woken up in a funky mood, opening proceedings with Joe Root’s part-time off-breaks against South Africa’s two left-handed openers. This was not George Clinton levels of funk, however, with Anderson a more familiar sight at the other end. And soon, three overs into his work, the veteran whistled up the first incision.
It was some burst too. After jagging a ball into Dean Elgar’s ribs, Anderson then beat his outside edge with swing and bounce before the third card in this particular trick held its line to send the off stump tumbling with a satisfying clonk; think of the sound produced when Simon Jones famously castled Michael Clarke here in 2005, minus Mark Nicholas adding: “THAT. WAS. VERY. GOOD.”
Robinson, given seniority over Stuart Broad on his return to the side, was instantly called upon. Tying Sarel Erwee in knots, – including one chance to Zak Crawley at slip that would have been sensational had it stuck – Robinson finally knocked him over for 25 when, caught in two minds, the opener’s intended leave feathered the ball behind.
Broad was finally called upon in the 21st over of the innings and believed he had struck fifth ball with a delivery that nipped away from the newly arrived Aiden Markram and tickled his off-bail to the ground. Much to Broad’s bemusement he had in fact overstepped to make it the second wicket of the match scrubbed off for a no-ball.
When Broad removed the Proteas’ palindrome in his following over – the hard-handed drive of a form-bereft player flying into the cordon – he swiftly turned to umpire Chris Gaffney to check it was all legitimate. A thumbs up from the New Zealander confirmed it was and, with the crowd entranced, England appeared to be on an unstoppable roll.
Instead they met two steadfast right-handers in Petersen and Van der Dussen. The pitch went sleepy, the ball went soft and, as the seamers rotated, Jack Leach twirled away thriftily if unthreateningly. Perhaps this was no surprise given three new ball bowlers. Van der Dussen, wincing with pain every time he blocked one, held firm.
Only one chance came during this battle of the wills, Van der Dussen edging behind on the stroke of tea but neither Stokes, the bowler, nor Foakes, the catcher, realised. This rare misstep from the pair mattered little, Stokes resuming his marathon stint and proving the catalyst for his fifth win from six as Test captain.