This Test is a long way from won, but Ben Stokes had hit his first hundred since taking over the captaincy, Ben Foakes his highest Test score. Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson had thrown the bat, then Jack Leach unfurled his switch hit.
Jimmy Anderson did not fancy a bat, but a declaration 264 runs ahead allowed him a go with the ball. For all the noise earlier, a well-oiled Old Trafford crowd serenading Anderson bowling from the End named after him might just have been the heartiest.
At stumps, South Africa are 23 without loss in their second innings, still 241 behind with the ball turning for Leach, who bowled three threatening overs as the shadows lengthened. England have a nine-over old ball to have another crack with tomorrow. A terrific weekend awaits.
Stokes’ hundred was impressively controlled, just what his team needed, and well-timed, given a documentary about his life was released today. It was perfectly-paced, and capped with the sort of poignant celebration we have come to expect from Stokes, with a hand gesture to the sky in honour of his late father Ged.
Foakes’ was a more significant knock, though. He joined his skipper, with England just four behind South Africa’s 151, after the quick wickets of Jonny Bairstow and Zak Crawley, who will get plenty of credit for laying a platform, to Anrich Nortje, breathing fire. With the ball turning and fourth innings batting promising to be awkward, a careless lower-order performance would have wasted the opportunity provided by their bowling on the first day.
Foakes came into this match with a Test average of 26.9 and, after a bright start to the summer, scores of 0, 6 and 0 either side of an awkwardly-timed bout of Covid that saw him miss the win over India at Edgbaston. This year, since he returned to the team in the Caribbean, that average was just 20.9. Even when keeping as immaculately as he often has, that number needed to tick up.
It did, to the delight of the England camp. Ollie Pope is going well at first drop, and Joe Root, Bairstow and Stokes make up an experienced and in-form middle order. This was a positive step for Foakes in terms of cracking a No7 role that maybe does not come naturally to him and England have other candidates for. At Surrey, he bats higher up the order, with great success; his average is 81 this season.
As keepers go, Foakes is an understated character who needs reassurance – he will get that in spades with Stokes as captain – and does not shout about his gifts. This innings will have been a mighty confidence boost after an awkward few weeks.
For the early part of their partnership of 173, Foakes kept pace with Stokes. Having been dismissed twice by him last week, he will have been grateful that Nortje’s spell was ending by the time he arrived at the crease, and that Dean Elgar used his firecracker curiously later in the day. So Foakes was able to settle against spin, which he did nicely, driving through cover and dancing across to the off side and flicking Simon Harmer through midwicket. He never looked to hit the ball in the air.
As Stokes expanded his repertoire, launching three sixes, Foakes looked for singles. When his captain went for 103, he picked up the pace once more, crunching Kagiso Rabada for pulled fours, and launching Keshav Maharaj down the ground. Neatly, his hundred was reached with a ridden cut off Nortje, a shot he had got wrong last week.
As the tail flayed away, Foakes kept ticking along and it took a declaration to displace him. Under an hour later, with Stokes’ encouragement, he was leading his team from the field, any doubts about his place forgotten.