Ben Stokes fixed on beating South Africa by setting benchmark with bat

Even by his own standards, it has been some week for Ben Stokes. After baring his soul before the release of his new documentary, outlining the panic attacks he continues to manage, it is back to business for the England Test captain and his team when the second match of the series against South Africa begins on Thursday.

The challenge is considerable. Dean Elgar’s attack scorched their way to the 1-0 lead at Lord’s, Kagiso Rabada setting things up with five wickets in the first innings and Anrich Nortje whistling up some of the quickest spells witnessed from a visitor in recent times. Old Trafford, where the traditional bounce called for Ollie Robinson’s return to the England XI, has Elgar tipping them to “get much better” this week.

To that end, the focus returns to England’s batting lineup – one with which they have kept faith here – and the diagnosis from their head coach, Brendon McCullum, that they need to “go harder” than at Lord’s. This mantra is something Stokes has looked to embody all summer, emerging at No 6 in a mood that has been bristling, bordering on reckless, and chiefly producing cameos rather than innings of substance.

It is not like Stokes doesn’t know the virtue of playing the long game at times. In Cape Town in early 2020, when England levelled a series they went on to win, he handed his player‑of‑the‑match award to Dom Sibley – the medal going back and forth between kit bags until the opener finally relented – after an eight-hour unbeaten 133 which, to pinch a line from Mike Selvey, was grittier than an egg sandwich on a windblown beach.

During his most memorable Test innings of all, the unbeaten 134 at Headingley in 2019, Stokes was famously three not out from 73 balls before igniting the afterburners. And even against Worcestershire this summer, when a County Championship record 17 sixes flew during an 88-ball 161, he was content to chisel out 12 runs from his first 30.

But much like McCullum – a head coach who, it is sometimes forgotten, once compiled an unbeaten Test triple hundred over 13 hours – Stokes believes he is playing the long game in a different way; that by consistently trying to flip pressure back on to the bowlers at the earliest opportunity, he is setting a benchmark for the project at large.

“I know when I play well it’s very good for the team,” Stokes said, after rain curtailed his side’s final training session. “Me being the leader, I would never ask my team to do something I wouldn’t – there’s a bigger picture to that, if that makes sense.

“I’m sure there will come a time when it does have to mellow down a little bit but at this time, right now, I feel I’ve got a big responsibility to be that person hitting the message home and almost people watching going like ‘he’s able to go out and do that in a difficult situation’.

“I don’t want this to come across that we’re not worried about our results. I know I said last week that it was third on the list but that’s not the case. We love winning. I love winning. I don’t enjoy losing, so I don’t want mixed messages from me saying it’s fine if we lose, because obviously it’s not. But it is at the same time.”

Process over results is one aspect of the environment Stokes and McCullum are looking to forge, hence their desire for loyalty. They are also trying to keep things relaxed, with net sessions being played out to an eclectic soundtrack by McCullum. Among the tunes this week were Whole Again by Atomic Kitten and John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads – not quite the Hundred’s playlist.

Indeed, McCullum’s taste appears to predate even Jimmy Anderson’s Test career, with the 40-year-old returning to Old Trafford where his name adorns one of the ends. When India aborted the fixture here last year, there were fears Anderson might never walk out for a Test on his home ground again but here he is, to borrow from the Denver classic, back to the place where he belongs.

Not that it stopped Stokes from jokingly dubbing Anderson and Broad “dinosaurs”. This came amid a compliment regarding their adaptability to the team’s new ways but this week, having been outbowled by their opposite numbers at Lord’s, some of the old magic would not go amiss. As regards his own contributions with the ball, Stokes once again played down the knee problem that has made him grimace all summer.

South Africa’s batting lineup does appear fragile, however well they compiled their match‑winning total of 326 all out, and though England cannot win the pace race in this series, the return of Robinson – a bowler whose skills are not in question – presents a fresh challenge to their techniques.

“It doesn’t change the way I want to see us play the game,” Elgar said, in typically forthright fashion. “And it definitely doesn’t intimidate me.”

In the background to this second Test comes the final stages of English cricket’s high‑performance review, one that could lead to the domestic landscape being terraformed considerably. Stokes was asked whether he had been consulted but said he was yet to open the email in his inbox.

“I’ve got this Test match to worry about,” came the simple explanation from Stokes, before confirming he will have his say. Given a week of groundbreaking personal revelations, that angry left knee and the need to switch back to focusing on South Africa’s impressive attack, the delay in replying is probably fair enough.