Could things have gone any better for England?
An addition of 111 runs without any wickets lost. A ninth Test century for Ben Stokes, as Ollie Pope, 75, narrows in on his first. South Africa looking listless and facing the prospect of a fourth Test shorn of their leading light Kagiso Rabada.
The South African seamer was pulled up by the ICC match referee Andy Pycroft last night for a send-off to Joe Root, picking up his fourth demerit point in the last 24 months to trigger an automatic ban. And while there was talk his discretion was not much in isolation, a bowler who has been pulled up before for encouraging batsmen to be on their way should at least learn by these lines are drawn.
But there was a point when Stokes was planting his two sixes into midwicket, or when he clobbed the morning’s fours to get him to his 174-ball hundred, that you realised this kind of provocative aggression was doing far more damage. For the Proteas, bowling on a flat deck, looked like a team run ragged despite the fact we are in the first … overs of this match.
Play started 45 minutes late but Stokes, together with Pope, pressed fast forward on England’s ascendancy. Their partnership currently stands at 187 and has featured as many classy shots from the 28-year old as the red head six years his junior.
The Surrey batsman lunches level with his previous best, achieved on the tour of New Zealand. But the clarity of his shots, particularly through the narrow windows at cover that Faf du Plessis was hoping to block off, spoke of a player not just comfortably at this level but with a real sense of feel. Again, that is no doubt aided by this surface, and some pretty wayward bowling from the hosts quicks in particular.
But it was hard not to look out at St George’s Park and wonder if the very best of the present was not picking off singles and punching gloves with the very best of the future. And in keeping with having things his own way in the 27 overs witnessed so far on day two, he successfully overturned an LBW decision against him that would have given Dane Paterson his maiden Test wicket. The delivery, which struck Pope in front as he moved across his stumps, was revealed to be missing leg stump, contrary to the standing umpire’s call.
As for that present, his milestone, brought up with a casual bump of a single into the off side, was celebrated with a tribute to his father, who remains in a Johannesburg hospital having fallen ill prior to the first Test. It makes Stokes’ innings – indeed, his tour – all the more remarkable. But it is also simply what we expect of an all-rounder coming into his own as one of the best players of his and, perhaps, other generations.
Prior to ticking over into three figures, he was applauded when the big screen congratulated him on passing 4,000 Test runs. In achieving that particular feat, he becomes only the second Englishman to have that kind of run tally alongside more than 100 wickets after Ian Botham.