Ollie Pope’s maiden Test century and another from the bat of the irrepressible Ben Stokes put England firmly in charge against South Africa on a dominant second day in Port Elizabeth.
The tourists declared on 499 for nine and closed having reduced the Proteas to 60 for two, a commanding position built around two brilliant knocks from men at different stages of their journeys.
Pope announced himself as a worthy recipient of the ‘next big thing’ tag he has been handed with an wonderful, unbeaten 135 in just his ninth Test innings, while Stokes’ 120 continued a remarkable sequence of performances that saw him crowned world player of the year this week.
The pair shared a stand of 203 for the fifth wicket, coming together on the previous evening at 148 for four and shaping the game together. Weighed down by the exertions of 152 overs in the field, South Africa lost Pieter Malan and Zubayr Hamza to Dom Bess’ off-spin in just over an hour’s play before stumps.
Rain interruptions at both ends of the day saw eight overs lost and further bad weather now seems the likeliest reason to bet against England taking a 2-1 lead with one to play. South Africa’s prospects in the decider have already taken a considerable hit, with strike bowler Kagiso Rabada banned as a result of the overzealous send-off that followed his day-one dismissal of Joe Root.
After a 45-minute delay Stokes and Pope resumed on 224 for four – a foundation built around slow and steady runs from the top order and their own late stand of 76.
The next two hours turned a marginal advantage into a meaningful one, England adding 111 runs without loss. Stokes was responsible for 70 of them as he slipped effortlessly into the kind of groove very few players have access to.
He started one run behind Pope on 38 but was first to 50, standing tall and twice crashing Rabada through midwicket. Keshav Maharaj had bowled with great control on day one but now found himself treated as cannon fodder, slog-swept for six as his first over disappeared for 12.
Stokes saved an even bigger blow for his next trick, clearing the ropes, the grass bank and the ground’s perimeter fence in one clean swipe. Another muscular blow saw Stokes pass 4,000 Test runs and on 99 he stroked Dane Paterson for a single, marking his ninth Test ton by removing a glove and bending his middle finger.
That was a nod to his father Ged’s amputated digit and a reminder that Stokes senior was watching from a hospital bed in Johannesburg following his emergency admission just before Christmas.
Pope overturned an lbw off the very next ball, with his best work to still to come. Stokes’ charge was coming to an end, though, slashing Paterson to backward point with 120 to his name.
Having played a sound supporting role Pope was now the senior batsman on 79. Despite his youth and inexperience, he guided the lower order impressively to pile on another 148 at a furious rate.
He was careful to make sure he reached his hundred – and who could blame him – but once he got over the line, forcing an on-drive into the gap for his 14th boundary, he gave a tantalising glimpse of his range.
Relying in equal parts on co-ordination and imagination he leaned into uppercuts and indulged himself with a neat array of ramps that threatened to tip Rabada over the edge. His status as the coming man of English cricket has been touted for some time, but as he walked off after almost six and a half hours of undefeated strokeplay he had replaced big words with big runs.
The stage seemed perfect for Jos Buttler but he was caught and bowled by Maharaj for just one, leaving others to take advantage of a weary attack. Sam Curran did so brilliantly, peppering the boundary before being caught on the ropes for 44.
Less expected was the post-tea assault from the blade of Mark Wood. Having previously hit just eight sixes in his first-class career, the number 10 cleared the ropes five times in quick succession off a punchdrunk Maharaj.
England appeared to declare when Wood skied Rabada on 25, but when replays showed a no-ball Root insisted the happy hitting continue. Wood and Pope eventually added 73 in 52 balls before the former holed out for 42, somewhat incredibly in pursuit of England’s fastest Test fifty.
Bess produced the breakthroughs England needed to ram home their position, completing a tame caught and bowled off Malan before Hamza flicked to short leg.
Just as appealing was a brief but rapid burst from Wood, who hit 93mph and struck Dean Elgar on the elbow as a taster of things to come.