IF Ben Stokes is not plundering South Africa with the bat, he is destroying them with the ball.
The Durham man thrillingly, dramatically took two wickets in two balls yesterday as England swept towards victory in the Investec Third Test.
It followed Stokes’ brilliant century in the first innings at The Oval.
Big runs and vital wickets in the same match – now that is the definition of a true all-rounder.
Stokes removed Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis – two of the Proteas’ big guns in the middle-order, while Toby Roland-Jones took out Hashim Amla for the second time in the match.
England enjoyed a glorious period of three wickets in eight balls and that will surely condemn South Africa to defeat in this match.
Stuart Broad had earlier bowled opener Heino Kuhn and, by the close of day two, South Africa were wobbling at 117-4, still 375 runs short of their impossible target of 492 to win.
But that was an improvement on 52-4 as Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma brought a degree of calm to the chaos in the closing hour-and-a-half.
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It was James Anderson’s 35th birthday but England’s three other seamers were the ones having a party.
The quick bowlers again made batting a challenging business on a pitch that has offered seam movement since Thursday morning.
Kuhn had his off stump flattened by Broad just two balls after Elgar was dropped by Keaton Jennings at third slip off Anderson.
South Africa then progressed calmly enough to 47-1 before their innings fell apart.
Roland-Jones continued his dream debut by again dismissing Amla, this time caught at second slip by Joe Root as he attempted to leave a ball.
Amla had been so intent on defence that he scored just five runs from 37 balls.
Then Stokes did his stuff.
He yorked De Kock with a beauty and Du Plessis shouldered arms to his first delivery and was nailed lbw. Even a review could not save him.
Incredibly, it was the second time in the match that South Africa’s skipper was lbw without offering a shot.
In 100 Test matches at The Oval, no bowler has taken a hat-trick and Stokes was unable to penetrate the defence of Bavuma. But it was superb, high-octane bowling.
Stokes, who has gradually discovered his rhythm in this series, bowled at a strong pace and landed a few blows on the hand, body and even feet of left-handed opener Elgar.
He was eventually removed from the attack following a spell of 8-0-29-2.
The nuggety Elgar was nursing plenty of bruises but he showed enormous fortitude on his way to a half-century.
He will resume on 72 not out and has so far put on 65 for the fifth wicket with Bavuma, who normally brings a sense of serenity to even the most dire of predicaments.
When England resumed in the morning, Jennings reached 48 but it was a scratchy, fortune-filled innings and he was bounced out by Kagiso Rabada – the last thing selectors want to see from their opening batsman.
He has probably done enough to cling on to his place for the Fourth Test at Old Trafford on Friday but the Durham left-hander is loitering by the exit door.
And, to make matters worse, he later spilled that relatively simple chance to reprieve Elgar.
Tom Westley struggled for fluency and managed just nine runs from his first 54 balls and 31 from 104 altogether yesterday, as the South African bowlers aimed outside off stump to reduce his favourite legside play.
But Westley hung around long enough to secure his maiden Test fifty. He was eventually stumped for 59 and then Root, after reaching a half-century for the ninth Test on the trot, slog-swept to deep square leg.
If Root makes a fifty in Manchester, he will equal former Surrey left-hander John Edrich’s all-time England record of ten half- centuries in ten consecutive Tests.
Dawid Malan struggled again before being out lbw on review. The Middlesex man’s Test debut brought a grand total of 11 runs.
Stokes was bowled heaving across the line, Moeen Ali was dozily run out and, when Jonny Bairstow holed out at long-off for 63 after a brief and breezy partnership with Roland-Jones, Root called a halt.
By the end, England’s batsmen were all selflessly having a swing in the pursuit of rapid runs.
Setting South Africa 492 to win in four sessions could hardly be described as a generous declaration by Root.
But England should still win with plenty to spare.
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