Judging by the first two tests against England, the Proteas need to find a solution to their Ben Stokes problem if they are to be the first to crawl across the line at the conclusion of the test series.
Having started the series somewhat on the back foot as his father fell ill during the first week of the tour, and spending time off the field in the first test at Centurion due to the illness that gripped the tourists’ squad during the first part of their trip, the world’s premier all-rounder’s performance in Cape Town suggests that he’ll be the difference between the two sides.
In the tense but ultimately emphatic 189-run win at Newlands Stadium – a ground he must want to take everywhere with him – Stokes took five catches at slip in the Proteas’ first innings, scored a quick-fire 72 (47 balls, seven fours and three sixes) in England’s second, and took the home team’s last three wickets to seal the victory.
As was the case when he helped England win the World Cup last year – and a lost-cause Ashes victory in Headingley against the Aussies – the visibly exhausted Stokes appeared to have a cape flapping behind him in the closing stages of the test in Cape Town, so heroic was he.
Former Proteas spinner Robin Peterson, who now coaches the Warriors in Port Elizabeth, also suspects that the fiery redhead will be the difference between the two nations.
“The two teams are not that far off each other, but I think the difference will be Stokes,” said Peterson.
“We don’t have an all-rounder to match England in that department, and that’s where they have an edge over us. He’s got to be the most valuable player in the world at the moment. Forget statistics, you can’t measure a player’s desire and will.
“People may say that he’s not the best all-rounder because he doesn’t average 50 with the bat, but if you want someone to do something special for you on the day, he’s your man – in a World Cup final, or bowling at 144km/h at 5pm on day five of a test. We were the envy of the world when we had Jacques Kallis. Now England have that – Stokes is probably a Kallis on steroids.”
Peterson’s suggestion about how the Proteas can partially solve the Stokes problem is a collective one.
“Their batting line-up relies heavily on [captain] Joe Root and Stokes. I feel that if they have a good start and a foundation, they become a dangerous batting line-up. The key for South Africa is going to be to get those guys in early all the time against a newish ball, which happened in the first test.
“If they don’t do it, England have shown that they can lay a foundation, and guys like Root, Stokes and Jos Buttler can come in and dictate.”
Peterson attributed the Proteas’ newfound competitiveness in tests, after a 2019 in which they couldn’t buy a test win, to a combination of things.
“They’ve got guys with test experience in their management team now and, to be honest it’s the same players.
“Sometimes as a player you need a shake-up. That’s probably what’s happened there now, where they were told: ‘This is the direction we’re going in. This is what it’s going to require ... You’ve got to get on the bus if you want to be part of the journey.’”
Looking ahead to the next test, which begins on Thursday in Port Elizabeth, Peterson – who has been impressed by the maturity and graft brought by batsmen Pieter Malan and Rassie van der Dussen, and the pace to burn brought by Anrich Nortje to help spearhead Kagiso Rabada – said it should be another tight affair. The two teams are locked on one-all at the moment.
“It’s traditionally been a good wicket. If it’s hot, you expect the spinners to play a role; the new ball will swing and there’ll be reverse swing; the batsmen can get hundreds – so all skills are in play. It’s always a fantastic wicket to play cricket on.”
Going into the game, England have lost veteran paceman Jimmy Anderson to a rib injury. As big a void as his 584 test wickets will leave in the team, he should be replaced by new fast bowling sensation Jofra Archer, who missed out in Cape Town due to an elbow injury.
“It’s a huge blow because Anderson’s a high-quality cricketer – you saw what he did in Cape Town,” said Peterson.
“I think the conditions would have suited him in Port Elizabeth because there’s normal swing with the new ball, reverse swing on offer and you can bowl cutters, which he does well.
“He’ll be a big loss, but they get a different type of bowler in Archer. But they also have Mark Wood in the wings, who’s got speed through the air, can reverse swing it and can get leg before wickets as well.”
Peterson, who declined to pick a series winner, added that the Proteas probably need captain Faf du Plessis to lead from the front by scoring the runs that have deserted him for the moment.