Ben Stokes has dedicated his match-winning performance in the second Test against South Africa to his stricken father, who kept tabs on England’s series-levelling victory from his hospital bed in Johannesburg.
An emotional Stokes spoke after his three wickets in the final session led Joe Root’s team to a 189-run win in Cape Town. The all-rounder’s tour has been overshadowed by the illness to his father, Ged, who was admitted to intensive care two days before Christmas but has since been stabilised.
Stokes won the man-of-the-match award, having made the decisive contribution with the ball after taking a record-equalling five catches in South Africa’s first innings and then scoring 72 from 47 balls to set up England’s declaration on day four at Newlands.
However, the illness to his father, a former rugby league player and coach who lives in his native New Zealand, has kept things in perspective. “This year can only really go downhill from here after that,” said Stokes. “I’ve had a few knee issues and stuff like that, but this game here I’ve got the three lions on my chest which is such a proud thing to be standing on a field doing.
“But I always had my dad in the back of my mind and that took any injury worries or niggles out of my head. I was thinking that he came out here to watch me and unfortunately he’s not been able to, so there was a lot more in my efforts this game, doing it for him. I haven’t managed to speak to him yet but hopefully I’ve made him proud. I had a text off Mum but I haven’t read it yet.”
During the final session Stokes told Joe Root, England’s captain, he would not be taken out of the attack until he had won his team the game. A spell of three for one in 2.2 overs saw that happen and the 28-year-old admitted: “The more experienced you get, the more understanding of games you have. I said: ‘You’re not getting the ball out of my hand here until this day is done.’ It was one last push for this Test match. We have a few days off here so whether that game went a bit longer, I was running in and trying to put everything into every ball.”
Stokes celebrated with a hand gesture in which he bends his middle finger forward so the tip cannot be seen, a reference to his father having to have part of that finger amputated after continuing to play when suffering an injury during his rugby league career in the 1980s.
The dismissals of Dwaine Pretorius, Anrich Nortje and Vernon Philander sealed victory for England deep into the last session and Stokes said the drama of the final day was a strong enough argument as to why Test matches should remain of five days’ duration.
The International Cricket Council has floated the idea of introducing mandatory four-day Tests from 2023, a concept the England & Wales Cricket Board has “cautiously welcomed”. But Stokes had added his voice to those against the idea, following on from Indian icons Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar. “I think people are saying it because a few matches peter out into a boring draw,” he said. “That takes away games like this, which must be awesome as a spectator to be living through the emotions. But being a player on the field, going through the highs and lows of what Test cricket can do to you on a day-to-day basis is just awesome. Test cricket is not made for four days. It’s made for five. It’s called Test cricket for a reason. Change it to Easy cricket if they make it four days.”
Though Stokes was named man of the match, he was insistent the award should have gone to his teammate Dom Sibley, the opener who batted for more than eight hours to compile his maiden Test hundred and produced an innings that set up England’s victory charge.
Sibley refused to join Stokes during the post-match interviews after England’s vice-captain attempted to cajole him up to the stage with him. But he has since given Sibley the trophy. “So we are sitting next to each other in the dressing room and I walked in, gave it to him and he put it in my place,” said Stokes. “I went ‘no’ and put it in his bag. I walked back in and it was back in my bag. I said: ‘You’ve shafted me once by making me do the interviews, if it ends up back in my spot we are never sitting next to each other again.’ He has got it now.”
As for how it feels to be the man who consistently gets England over the line in tight situations, Stokes added: “It’s an amazing thing to be a part of with adrenaline. Cricket is a team sport, it’s always a team effort and is never down to one individual. Everyone at some point has put their hand up and done something in the crucial moments.”