Ben Stokes gives England hope after South Africa build first Test advantage

One of the effects of England’s buccaneering approach to Test cricket this summer has been to challenge accepted norms and leave us onlookers questioning whether they are in as much strife as the scoreboard suggests.

The second day against South Africa at Lord’s felt a case in point. After two sessions English heads could have been forgiven for dropping, the tourists having snuffed out their first innings for a mere 165 through Kagiso Rabada’s 12th five-wicket haul and then cruised to within seven runs of that total just two wickets down.

And come stumps, as the spectators who had come decked out in red and helped raise over £267,000 for the Ruth Strauss Foundation made their way to the exits, the balance of power seemed obvious. South Africa were 289 for seven and leading by 124 runs after a rapid 72-run seventh-wicket stand between Marco Jansen and Keshav Maharaj.

But this was also an evening session that had seen England fight back impressively with five strikes after tea. Ben Stokes had thundered in to produce three of these interventions and so while logic suggests his side are miles behind in this series opener, a nagging sense of things being tighter still lingers.

So much of this engrossing day revolved around Stokes. England’s Test captain is adamant he cares solely for wickets with the ball these days and though his attack initially struggled to muster the same consistent threat as their counterparts, his steadfast desire for a lengthy slip cordon also offered easy runs.

Once Rabada had ended Ollie Pope’s lone hand innings on 73 en route to figures of five for 52 and a deserved place on the Lord’s honours board for a bowler of his class, Dean Elgar and Sarel Erwee enjoyed the gaps. South Africa do not return to England for Test cricket in the new future tours programme that runs up to May 2027 and they look a side determined to make this tour count.

The two left-handers combined for a largely serene 85-run opening stand. There was a scare early on – Elgar edged Matt Potts on seven only for Zak Crawley to tip the ball over the bar at second slip – but otherwise a wicket did not appear to be forthcoming and, as is so often the case at Lord’s, spectators began to linger longer at the bars.

In the end it required a huge slice of luck to separate the pair mid-afternoon, Elgar bowled on 47 by Jimmy Anderson when a delivery crashed into his pad, bounced up on to his elbow and then trickled back on to the stumps to dislodge a bail. As well as agony for Elgar, this was the first time since 1961 that a 40-year-old frontline seamer had claimed a Test wicket for England.

Erwee, who had earlier dropped Pope after four juggled attempts, ploughed on and though Potts managed to remove one of his Durham teammates this summer, Keegan Petersen, for 24 when a drive flew to third slip, England were still struggling to fully harness the swing and seam movement on offer.

To that end, it was slightly curious that Stokes delayed the introduction of spin until the 42nd over of the innings. Jack Leach instantly found some purchase from the surface and then at the start of the evening session made this count, Aiden Markram offering a limp poke to a ball that spun and feathering behind to Ben Foakes.

The lock picked, Stokes then simply barged through the door from the other end in a thunderous five-over spell that produced precious two wickets. Erwee was bounced out for an otherwise well-crafted 73, unable to evade an 89mph snorter, while Rassie van der Dussen was trapped lbw for 19 six balls later by a smart delivery that angled in.

Stuart Broad had been experiencing an off day up this point – a couple of fours in his earlier 15 notwithstanding – but soon he was celebrating his 100th Test wicket at Lord’s. It was a beauty too, wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne sent on his way by a wobble-seam delivery that nipped away from the right-hander and tickled the outside edge.

South Africa were reeling on 210 for six but then hit back in characterful fashion, Jansen and Maharaj crashing 11 fours and one six for what convention would suggest was a match-defining stand. Had England been the ones indulging in such outright mischief, folks would be wanging on about ‘Bazball’.

Irked by all this, Stokes grabbed the ball and, despite visibly struggling with his dicky left knee and being taken for 16 by Jansen in one over, managed to shut down Maharaj’s cameo for a lively 41 with another short ball. The impressive Jansen, just 22 years old, remained unbeaten on 41 however and will resume with Rabada first thing.

Stokes will doubtless be reminding his troops there is a new ball due in three overs and they came back from a 132-run first innings deficit against India. That win required a record run chase, of course, and this time they are the ones setting the target.

But given some of the nonsensical Test cricket witnessed so far this summer, no one can say with complete certainty that this match is settled.