This was five-day test match cricket at its finest.
Ben Stokes took the final three wickets on Tuesday to lead England to victory over South Africa in the Second Test in Cape Town with just 50 balls to spare. In doing so, he not only ensured that Joe Root’s side levelled the series, but he also provided a compelling response to news that the ICC are exploring the possibility of introducing four-day tests.
Earlier this week, the sport’s governing body revealed that matches could be shortened by 2023 in order to release congestion in the World Test Championship, with Sachin Tendulkar among a number of high-profile figures to immediately rail against the idea. However, it was the players of South Africa and England who gave the most convincing of arguments for the continuation of five-day test cricket by putting on an absorbing spectacle at Newlands.
And, once again, it was Stokes stealing the show.
England’s World Cup star and Headingley Ashes hero of 2019 added another match-clinching effort to his record, dismissing Dwaine Pretorius, Anrich Nortje and Vernon Philander in the final hour of the match to lead his side to a 189-run win which levels the four-game series.
The Proteas had looked set to salvage a draw at one point, with Quentin de Kock and Rassie van der Dussen having seen out almost 34 overs in a sixth-wicket stand which threatened to frustrate England’s march towards victory.
However, De Kock threw his wicket away shortly after reaching 50 by slashing a loose ball from Joe Denly to Zak Crawley at short-midwicket, and from there England turned the screw with Stuart Broad soon claiming Van der Dussen’s wicket via a Jimmy Anderson catch at leg gully.
Philander and Pretorius stabilised the batting for long enough to give South Africa another glimpse of safety before Stokes stole the show after returning to the attack.
First he coaxed an edge from Pretorius which was snaffled by Root at first slip, and then from the very next ball Nortje pushed at a ball which third-slip Crawley took at the second attempt.
Four overs later, Philander was the last man to fall fencing to Ollie Pope at gully, and Stokes had completed a final spell of 4.4 overs with three wickets for the loss of a single run.
Stokes was promptly named Man of the Match by the sponsors, but was quick to acknowledge the efforts of Dom Sibley after the opener’s maiden test century had helped England to set South Africa a target of 438.
“I think I came in in a do-or-die situation and I thought Dom put in the hard yards to get us in the position to win. He's the Man of the Match, full credit to him, first Test match hundred at the most beautiful ground in the world,” said Stokes in the post-match presentation.
“Credit to everyone, we've got three guys who are 21 and had to step up, Sam [Curran], Zak and Ollie, the future looks great and hopefully this is a stepping stone. We've shown a huge amount of character.
“It's why five-day cricket should always be around. Games like these are unforgettable, we'll remember it for a long time, so will South Africa and it will go down as one of the greats."
While the ICC busily consider taking the fifth day out of the equation for test cricket, seven of England’s last nine matches have now gone the distance. And with the Barmy Army in full voice down to the engrossing final overs, Cape Town 2020 was the greatest advert five-day cricket could have asked for.