South Africa v England third Test takeaways: Ben Stokes human after all, Faf du Plessis on the brink

England head into the fourth and final Test with the wind in their sails while South Africa are without suspended fast bowler Kagiso Rabada

Cricket - South Africa v England - Third Test - St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, South Africa - January 18, 2020   England's Ben Stokes in action   REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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Stokes only human shock!

In what must have been a great relief to the mere mortals of the cricket world, the third Test reminded us that Ben Stokes is only flesh and blood after all.

Questions were being asked whether the England all-rounder was actually of this planet, such was his form with bat, ball and in the field.

After a quiet first Test, Stokes exploded into life in Cape Town, taking five catches in the first innings, then smashing 72 from 47 balls to leave South Africa an improbable 438 run chase, and then producing a hostile spell of fast-bowling to claim the final three wickets and set up a 189-run win.

At Port Elizabeth, his knock of 120 – in partnership with fellow Centurion Ollie Pope – set-up England’s daunting first innings total of 499-9 declared.

Was there any weakness in this superhuman, World Cup winning, Ashes hero and recently anointed ICC Player of the Year?

Suddenly, in South Africa’s reply, shots from the dangerous Quinton de Kock seemed to turn the ball into Kryptonite and Stokes shelled three catchable chances - for his very high standards anyway - at slip that brought a temporary halt to England’s victory charge.

For a short time, superman Stokes was brought back down to earth a bump.

England's Joe Root (L) and England's Ollie Pope pose for a poartrait during the fifth day of the third Test cricket match between South Africa and England at the St George's Park Cricket Ground in Port Elizabeth on January 20, 2020 / AFP / Richard Huggard

Pope and Bess stake their claims

Batting collapses and a lack of a top-class frontline spinner have long been a source of concern for England.

So the performances of Pope and Dominic Bess, both 22, in Port Elizabeth will have come as a welcome relief for captain Joe Root.

Batsman Pope, in particular, has looked at home in the middle order after following up his patient, unbeaten half century in Cape Town with a magnificent 135 not out at St George's Park.

"When you see someone with that ability, once they believe it themselves, then the sky is the limit,” said Root of his new No 6.

Spinner Bess was not even in the original tour party but, after injury, illness and lack of form ruled out the likes of Adil Rashid, Jack Leach and Moeen Ali, the Somerset player was given his chance.

And he certainly took it, claiming 5-51 to became the youngest English spinner to take an overseas five-for as England went on to seal an innings victory.

With a tour of spin-friendly Sri Lanka next up, Bess could not have timed his emergence better.

Cricket - South Africa v England - Third Test - St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, South Africa - January 19, 2020   South Africa's Faf du Plessis in action   REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Du Plessis on the brink

After South Africa has battered England by 107 runs in the Centurion first Test, captain Faf du Plessis had warned his inexperienced team not to get too carried away.

“We haven’t really achieved anything as a Test team,” he said. “If you take your foot off the gas and complacency creeps in, we’ll go back to playing just ordinary Test cricket.”

Sadly for the Proteas, they not only took their foot off the gas, but have stalled and gently rolled backwards, with two humiliating defeats.

Du Plessis, 35, has not scored a century in more than a year, contributing just 113 runs at an average of less than 19 in this series.

South Africa have now lost seven out of their last eight Tests and the writing looks on the wall for their beleaguered leader.

South Africa's Kagiso Rabada (2ndR) celebrates after the dismissal of England's Joe Root (2ndL) while South Africa's Pieter Malan (L) and South Africa's Rassie van der Dussen (R) looks on during the first day of the third Test cricket match between South Africa and England at the St George's Park Cricket Ground in Port Elizabeth on January 16, 2020. / AFP / MARCO LONGARI

Proteas to rue Rabada absence

As if Du Plessis does not have enough problems going into the fourth and final Test in Johannesburg, the Proteas captain will be without key fast bowler Kagiso Rabada.

Rabada picked up a one-match ban for his over-enthusiastic celebration after claiming the  wicket of Root during the third Test.

But whether the ban was justified has divided opinion. "You can't keep making the same mistakes,” said former West Indian bowler Michael Holding. “He has to remember he is damaging his team. Control your emotions.”

But others came to the defence of the 24-year-old, with ex-England captain Nasser Hussein critical of the decision. “I would say the game has kicked itself today,” he said. “I think we forget what it's like out there in the heat of battle.

“I am going to the Wanderers slightly less looking forward to it because one of the world's great bowlers won't be bowling there.”

Cricket - South Africa v England - Second Test - PPC Newlands, Cape Town, South Africa - January 5, 2020      England's Joe Root in action       REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Root’s captain conundrum

The turnaround in fortunes from the opening Test thrashing will have provided a much-needed boost for Root. And the fact that victory on Monday was achieved without James Anderson, Jofra Archer, Rory Burns and Leach, should be a major boost for the Yorkshireman.

But the stresses and strains of captaincy have clearly taken its toll, with his average dropping from 52 to 42 since taking charge.

The likes of Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson have all kicked-on to another level in recent years, leaving Root trailing in their wakes.

He even dropped out of the top 10 Test rankings in 2019 for the first time in five years, although has since dragged himself back up to No 8.

A Test average of 50.40 is still mightily impressive, but it is time to start converting more half-centuries into centuries and remind everyone why he was No 1 in the world less than five years ago.