A tale of two Bens: Stokes, Foakes centuries give England commanding lead over South Africa

Timing is everything in cricket.

Whether it’s a batter stroking the ball through the ceiling, a bowler finding his rhythm, or a fielder jumping at just the right moment to earn an overhead catch, timing is often the difference between success and failure.

As someone who excels in all of the above aspects of the game, Ben Stokes has excellent timing. But he has something more: the talent to produce one big performance all at once and as part of a narrative that storytellers dream of. He’s a Hollywood headliner in a box office hit.

Of course, he would achieve his first century as England’s full-time Test captain on the same day that a film documenting his career is released, because it’s the perfect timing for him (side note: Phoenix from the Ashes is an excellent and fascinating watch-worthy documentary ).

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But such thoughts would not have crossed his mind as he came to the crease on day two of testing at Old Trafford. Much more important was the task of using the advantage that his bowlers had given him the previous day.

England were down four wickets and were 17 runs behind South Africa when Stokes joined Zak Crawley in the middle; a position strong enough but – a week after several hits collapsed with a huge loss at Lord’s – hardly an invincible one.

Crawley, who had scrubbed and scraped hard before snapping a fantastic ball of perfect line and length with just enough nibble at the seam from Anrich Nortje, was soon replaced by England’s second Ben, South Africa’s lead dwindling to just four.

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Ben Foakes may time the ball nicely in the middle, but his international career has stalled largely due to unfortunate timing mishaps: unusual injuries, COVID-19, faltering form with the racquet and England’s pursuit of the Jos Buttler experiment, to name a few to call.

He has long been considered by many to be the best wicketkeeper in the world; The question was whether England needed the best glove man or the best batsman who could also hold.

England’s new approach, particularly at batting, under Stokes and Brendon McCullum has presented Foakes with a particular challenge. His natural play is more traditional, batting time and accumulation at No. 5 for Surrey through a series of classic shots.

His role now is to bat at No. 7, usually with his tail, in an England side for which proactive run-scoring is key – a significant mental shift.

So after lunch, two very different, rhyming Bens set out to cement and extend England’s lead with a 173-round partnership of contrasting styles.

South Africa perhaps played into their hands by focusing on Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer for most of the afternoon and holding off Kasigo Rabada and Nortje who had bowled brilliantly and effectively in tandem during the morning session.

There was a turn-on offer but Stokes loves nothing more than knocking out spinners and Foakes made a century of his debut in Sri Lanka nearly four years ago.

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Foakes initially found scoring easier, using a series of clips, drives and sweeps that found the gaps and were pleasing to the eye.

And while it took Stokes some time to get into his stride, he gave a typically menacing signal as he smoked the first ball he faced from Harmer over the deep midwicket fence.

It wasn’t long before Stokes surpassed Foakes in goal speed, although there was a moment of trepidation when the captain paused, his troublesome knee clearly causing him pain and requiring ongoing repairs and some painkillers.

It was just a brief hiatus from the Stokes show. While that was a more prudent inning than some of his other daring performances that summer, he authoritatively brought up his half-century, his trademark to hit Harmer’s ball and put it down on the England dressing room balcony.

By the time Nortje and Rabada returned with the new ball, the Bens had the game so far from South Africa that only Herculean performances can save it.

And there was the added bonus of two milestones yet to come.

Stokes was first with a crisp straight drive from Rabada that brought up his century, the club raised and the look to the sky no doubt to acknowledge his father, whose recent death is a pivotal and devastating chapter in Stokes history.

After Stokes was out on 103 and misreading a heve from Rabada, he refocused on Foakes and he put his hundred in front of Nortje with a classic cut for four. It was a contribution as valuable as that of his captain and a great personal achievement given the many setbacks he has endured.

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The explanation came when Foakes was undefeated at 113 and England at 415-9, leading by 264 and really dominating the game.

MORE: South Africa beat England in three days for 1-0 lead

After South Africa’s opening games reduced the lead by 23 runs, the English were silent, laughing and clapping back as they left the pitch.

Almost on instinct, the other players stepped back so Stokes could lead them away. Smiling, he stepped behind Foakes and gave him a gentle nudge in the back, shoving him into the spotlight and following him off the field.

Captain Ben knew this was the other Ben’s moment.

In cricket, timing really is everything.

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