Not even the most optimistic member of the Amazon Prime marketing team could have predicted such a launch day for their new film about the life and times of Ben Stokes.
Posters, viral clips, in-depth interviews and the like – none of these could top the man himself compiling a first century as England captain that saw his side take full control of their must-win second Test against South Africa.
It came shortly after tea on the second day at a lively Old Trafford as Stokes, on 99, danced out to Kagiso Rabada and, not for the first time, drilled a perfect straight drive. Rabada stuck out a boot instinctively, the ball ricocheted to square leg and, to the delight of the crowd and his teammates, England’s talisman was savouring three figures in the sport’s longest, toughest and most satisfying format for the 12th time.
Stokes kept his emotions in check, preferring to whip off his helmet, drop his gloves to the turf and raise his bat almost sheepishly in response to the eruption of noise.
After a hug from Ben Foakes – Robin to his Batman and a centurion himself later in the day – he offered a crooked middle finger skywards as a nod to his father, Ged, whose passing in late 2020 is one of the threads of a compelling documentary about anxiety and strength.
The 31-year-old had needed the word ‘cathartic’ explained to him during his pre-match press conference but looked to be experiencing its meaning out in the middle. And though dismissed shortly after, his wonderfully controlled innings of 103 from 163 balls terminated by a top-edge off Rabada, Stokes was able to take his place on the balcony, don the aviators and watch Foakes finesse his way to 113 not out from 217 balls.
Along with Stuart Broad’s typically madcap 21 and some additional tail-end swish from Ollie Robinson (17) and Jack Leach (11), Foakes helped England pile up 415 for nine declared in reply to South Africa’s 151 all out for a lead of 264.
The tourists at least clung on before the close, surviving nine probing overs as the shadows lengthened, but they will resume on 23 for none, 241 in arrears, and need a hero or two of their own.
Foakes deserved his moment in the spotlight, having kept pace with Stokes initially – both had 41 to their name at one stage – before dropping back and enjoying his captain’s slipstream during a game-changing sixth-wicket stand of 173 in 53.4 overs.
But once he was the senior man out there on 68, and the score on 320 for six, he began tucking into the Proteas attack, with a late guide for four off Anrich Nortje – his tormentor at Lord’s – bringing up a second Test century in his 16th appearance.
South Africa seemed largely powerless to prevent all this unfolding, even if they had begun the day in bright fashion. Nortje built up a head of steam following an initial flurry of boundaries, with his five-over spell of fast reverse swing seeing Jonny Bairstow waft to slip on 49 and Zak Crawley nick off for 38. England found themselves 145 for five and it felt as if this Test might not produce a half-century, let alone a three-figure score.
But over the course of the day, as the ball went soft, Dean Elgar’s tactics started to baffle onlookers. There was lavish turn at times for his spin twins, Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer, but, even still, his decision to persist with the pair after lunch and leave the likes of Nortje and Rabada grazing in the outfield played into England’s hands. When Stokes heaved Harmer into the England dressing room for six to bring up his half-century from 101 balls, Elgar eventually turned back to the faster men.
Stokes was imperious in both attack and defence. Gone was the player who spent the first five Tests of his captaincy trying to send a message of aggression to his players by looking to larrup every delivery, instead opting to respect his opponents and pace his innings accordingly. One scare came in the morning when he twisted his troublesome left knee turning for a second run, while on 72 he needed to overturn an lbw decision after Lungi Ngidi hoodwinked him with a fine slower ball but hit bat before pad.
But his century felt almost inevitable, Stokes switching on the after-burners during the second half of his innings to turn 50 into three-figures from only 57 additional balls. That said, the tourists did carve out a chance on 92 when, up against the second new ball, Stokes drilled Rabada to short cover only for Aiden Markram to spill a tough diving catch. South African shoulders had already dropped by this stage and Elgar, stewing on his side’s meek day-one collapse after winning the toss, did well not to combust.
Foakes was similarly responsible, looking comfortable against the spinners, working his runs wristily through leg, and growing in confidence against the quicks. There was one heart-in-mouth moment six minutes before lunch when given out lbw on 28 but his review showed Maharaj’s delivery had pitched outside leg. From there, he and Stokes batted through a wicketless afternoon as an increasingly boisterous crowd witnessed what was, apparently, the first century partnership from a pair of English Bens.
This alliance also hinted that life under Stokes and the head coach, Brendon McCullum, will not solely be a case of pedal to the metal at all times. The new Stokes biopic may have received an even greater push than before but the message its subject had delivered to his players felt far more important on the day.