The ball was coming at Ben Stokes like a rocket, and for about a blink of an eye he thought he was out of position.
He tracked back side on, timed his jump, threw his right arm high, and caught the ball while falling backwards. He rolled inside the midwicket boundary, and came up with the ball safely in hand.
It was a moment of genius that had the near capacity crowd at the Oval roaring with delight on Thursday at the Cricket World Cup.
Stokes stood and basked in the applause, and waited with hands on hips while his England teammates rushed to congratulate him on a catch that former teammate Graeme Swann called “ridiculously audacious.”
The catch of South Africa lower-order batsman Andile Phehlukwayo wasn’t a turning point or even vital as England thrashed South Africa by 104 runs, but it was a memorable reminder of Stokes’ talent as the allrounder played a match-winning role in the opener of a tournament his top-ranked team is seeking to win for the first time.
Stokes top-scored with the bat with 89 as England put up 311-8, then helped to dismiss South Africa for 207 by taking the last two wickets with consecutive deliveries after taking two catches, the second of which will be replayed for years.
“I had a panic on for the catch, I was further in than I should have been. Luckily it stuck,” Stokes said. “It was a regulation catch if I was in the right position.
“That feeling for about five seconds when I was facing the crowd and everyone was cheering, it was phenomenal.”
Stokes’ place in the lineup had been questioned by some in the buildup. Since he was involved in a late-night brawl in Bristol in September 2017, of which he was acquitted of affray last August, he hadn’t been his old self in an England uniform. He averaged 49 with the bat, and took no wickets, but finally scored big this month in the series sweep of Pakistan.
On Thursday, he was outstanding.
“Ben Stokes has had a full day, his catch was absolutely outstanding,” England captain Eoin Morgan said. “He is a match-winner and lifts everybody.”