In the final session on day five of an enthralling Test match with South Africa, on a well-worn but dead wicket, against the background of Table Mountain and with the away fans in full voice, England needed three wickets to secure a hugely significant victory.
There were 17 remaining scheduled overs in which to dismiss the South African tail end; 102 balls in which to make good on Dominic Sibley’s maiden Test match century and all the effort which had been expended.
Ben Stokes had not claimed any of the previous 17 Proteas scalps to fall. He had snaffled six catches at second slip and scored 119 valuable runs across two innings, but had toiled for 28 overs with ball in hand without reward.
Man for the big moments
And yet Joe Root had no hesitation in throwing him the ball yesterday and tasking the all-rounder with wrapping up England’s first away Test win in 11 months and their first at Newlands since 1957.
Stokes, after all, is the man for the big moments – any moment, in any match situation and using any of his vast array of skills.
Read more: Sibley sets up England victory push
He did not quite manage to reach the heights of his two most recent superhuman performances – last year’s World Cup final and Headingley Ashes Test – but, with Jimmy Anderson struggling with an apparent injury and Stuart Broad resting, everyone knew the stage was set for Stokes. As ever, he did not disappoint.
While it was Quinton de Kock’s sloppy shot straight to midwicket from an innocuous Joe Denly long-hop which opened the door and Anderson’s simple catch moments after moving to leg slip to dismiss Rassie van der Dussen which propped it open, it was Stokes who took the opportunity to charge through it.
In the absence of any pace from the dried-out Cape Town pitch, Broad and Sam Curran had resorted to running their fingers down the side of the ball, hoping for an error from the batsman.
Stokes, as he has so often in the past, chose a different route of attack, putting all his effort into a spellbinding, match-winning succession of 28 balls.
Tearing in on the ground where he so memorably struck 258 in 2016 – the first of his now numerous scarcely-believable efforts – he harnessed the noise from what increasingly felt like a home crowd to crank up the pace and find reverse swing.
With off-spinner Dom Bess holding down the other end, Stokes set about making his mark. A first over at Dwaine Pretorius was relatively uneventful, but still suggested something special might be brewing as he got up to speed.
It didn’t take long for him to warm up, with the second scaring the life out of Pretorius and reassuring his England team-mates that Stokes was on the brink of yet another defining performance.
Stokes’ ability to come wide on the crease, create an inward angle, find lift and then jag the ball away at 90mph makes him a nightmare to face and when Vernon Philander inexplicably turned down an easy single off Bess to take the strike, Pretorius was offered up as a sacrificial lamb.
The South African all-rounder edged to Root at first slip, who took a brilliant low catch. Anrich Nortje then perished in similar fashion first ball, with Zak Crawley completing a stunning slip catch at the second attempt. Kagiso Rabada survived the hat-trick ball but Stokes was not to be denied for long, producing an unplayable delivery which hit Philander’s glove and landed in the grateful hands of Ollie Pope.
It was a fitting finale to a wonderful contest, which levelled the four-match series at 1-1 and provided a perfect riposte to the International Cricket Council’s pending proposal to reduce Tests to four days.
“It’s why five-day cricket should always be around,” said Stokes. “Games like these are unforgettable.”