Ben Stokes' innings a gift for test cricket

By Lawrence Booth

Ben Stokes celebrates reaching 200 against South Africa. Photo / AP
Ben Stokes celebrates reaching 200 against South Africa. Photo / AP

On Saturday evening, cricket was forced to ask itself exactly where it was heading when more than 80,000 spectators turned up in Melbourne to watch a game of domestic Twenty20.

It was a phenomenal moment for the sport, yet it posed awkward questions for the dear old Test, supposedly left to waste away with pipe and slippers. In Cape Town on Sunday, Ben Stokes came up with an instant retort.

His brutal 258 off 198 balls did many things. It broke records, destroyed bowlers' esteem and summed up the credo of this England side, which is to err on the side of incaution. But it also reminded fans that box-office batting needn't be the preserve of the 20-over format. And when it happens in a Test, it feels so much more significant.

The partnership between Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, whose unbeaten 150 would have hogged the headlines on any other day, amounted to 399 runs at a rate of 6.91 per over. That's almost three Twenty20 innings' worth of entertainment right there. Stokes, of course, is not the first batsman to take the Twenty20 mindset into the five-day format and make the bowlers wish the ground would swallow them up.

Of the six fastest double hundreds in Tests, five have come since the introduction of Twenty20 in 2003.

When people talk about the death of Test cricket, they might just as easily be talking about the spread of Twenty20. Yet even by the standards of fast-forward Test batting, this was something else. Last year alone, English cricket witnessed the best of two very different types of Test innings. There was an 85-ball century from Stokes against New Zealand at Lord's, and a 14-hour 263 from Alastair Cook in Abu Dhabi (left).

Aggression and attrition, carnage and calm, chalk and cheese.

Stokes's genius at Newlands was to combine both, extending the violence to the highest score made by a Test No 6, and the 13th highest by any England batsman.

And he chose his targets as if he were singling out the weak fifth link in a one-day bowling attack. From seamer Chris Morris alone, Stokes thrashed 16 fours from 57 balls; and from off-spinner Dane Piedt, he mowed six sixes. If you slept in, you missed the rare sight of a Test batsman acknowledging a hundred and a double hundred in the same session.

Had Stokes not been run out as he dawdled in expectation of AB de Villiers completing a catch - it was Stokes's first mistake of the innings - he might have equalled Wasim Akram's world record of 12 sixes.

As it is, Stokes can take his place in the pantheon of destruction by England Test batsmen. It is a group that extends as far back as 1902, when Gilbert Jessop flayed Australia at The Oval, and takes in Wally Hammond's run-a-minute 336 not out at Auckland in 1932-33 and Denis Compton's 278 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge in 1954.

Then there was Ian Botham at Headingley and Old Trafford in the fantasy summer of 1981, and Kevin Pietersen's Ashes-clinching 158 at The Oval in 2005, followed by his furious 149 against South Africa at Headingley seven years later.

If innings against Australia seem to count double in the English imagination, then the objective analysis is that Stokes matched or bettered all those for sheer devastation.
Comparing different eras is always a fraught business, but as former England captain Mike Atherton put it on Sky Sports: 'In terms of sustained demolition, I don't think I've seen anything like it.'

The nit-pickers will point out that South Africa were missing the injured Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, that the sun was out and the pitch flat. But Stokes began his innings on Saturday afternoon after England had lost two wickets in two balls to the rapid Kagiso Rabada either side of tea. And he did so without so much as a Test half-century in 13 knocks.

Whichever way you look at it, Stokes produced an innings for the ages. And, at the start of its 140th year, he did Test cricket a huge favour in the process.

- Daily Mail

- Daily Mail

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