Ben Stokes resurrects England from the Ashes with innings of bravery, violence and pure undiluted theatre

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At 4.16pm on a baking Sunday afternoon in Leeds, Ben Stokes clattered the ball through cover for four. And so was secured one of the most improbable, unforeseeable, unfathomable, unthinkable Test wins ever known. The bare facts of the transaction are startling enough: Stokes’s unbeaten 135, most coming in a 10th-wicket partnership of 76 with Jack Leach, saw England to the highest successful run chase in its history. What no scorebook will ever tell you, however, was how it felt to be there: to witness the breathtaking bravery, the stunning violence, the pure undiluted theatre of a sporting resurrection that simply nobody saw coming. 

As the Headingley crowd rose to its feet, the beaten Australians slumped to the turf: some forwards, some backwards, all disbelieving. The final acts of this game – the missed opportunities, the poor decisions, the near misses – will darken their days and haunt their nights. Having spent the best part of four days carving out a position of seeming impregnability, Tim Paine and his team could only look on in horror as Stokes tore it down, piece by lawless piece. The series is level at 1-1. Two matches remain. More chances will present themselves. But this was their first, and you wonder if it was also their best.

For just as this was no ordinary victory, nor was this any ordinary defeat. The bones of this game will be brushed and picked over for decades to come: repackaged as souvenir DVDs and social media content and television highlights packages that will still be showing long after the protagonists have hung up their spikes. The mythology of Headingley 2019, as with Headingley 1981 before it, will be stirred into the wider mythology of English cricket. Cricket fans who are 16 today will still be able to recite the commentary when they’re 60. Millions will falsely claim they were there. And yet you still suspect something will be lost in the retelling: the prickles and the mania and the sheer absurdity of that piping hot Bank Holiday weekend, when every one of England’s 362 runs seemed to be exalted as raucously as the very last.  

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How did it happen? To answer that question, you would need to go back to Saturday evening, when Joe Root and Joe Denly salved England’s wounded pride after the loss of two early wickets. You would need to account for Australia’s peculiarly wayward bowling in the morning session, allowing Jonny Bairstow to launch a decisive counter-attack. You would need to pay tribute to Jack Leach, who scored just one run in an hour at the crease, most of which seemed to be spent cleaning the steam off his glasses. But in the final analysis, all of this will be boiled away, until a single word, a single name, a single remarkable cricketer, remains. Stokes. 

Grace, Botham, Flintoff, Stokes. After his feats in English cricket’s third summer of love, first in July’s World Cup final and now here, the fourth name no longer sounds like an anomaly. Stokes now certainly belongs in the pantheon of great England cricketers, his innings perhaps the very greatest of them all. In the 142-year history of Test cricket, others have scored more runs, quicker runs, even more important runs. Others have marshalled incredible chases with a mixture of staggering hitting and pure bravado. The names of Kusal Perera and Brian Lara, Ian Botham and Kevin Pietersen, come to mind at times like this. But given the circumstances, given the opposition, given the margins of error and the consequences of failure, given the size of the stage and everything it had seen in the three days previous, it may just be that Stokes stands alone. 

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As Stuart Broad unhappily trudged from the field shortly after 3pm, Stokes did indeed stand alone. England were 286-9, requiring 73 more to win. Morning’s hope had disintegrated into afternoon’s cruel rebuke. A valiant effort had come up short. Five batsmen had perished since lunch. England had scrapped, and fought, and defied, and dared. But they had also lost.

And so, as was his privilege, he decided to have a little fun. You could scarcely describe it as unearned: having come in late on Saturday night and seen off 50 balls for just two runs, he had done more than anyone to resist the Australian tide. Now he clouted Nathan Lyon over long-off for six. Ironic cheers. Now he reverse-swept Lyon with stupid, effortless ease over point for six more. More cheers, but different this time. In retrospect, that was the moment Australia began to doubt themselves: the moment they realised that they were operating in the realm of the conceivable, and Stokes was not.

Stokes produced an array of brilliant shots (Reuters)

Cummins was flicked nonchalantly for six. Josh Hazlewood, nine wickets in the match, was pulled for four, swept for six, and then hooked for another six. In the space of just 10 minutes, Stokes had taken 30 runs off Australia’s two best bowlers and reached his century. This last fact barely seemed to register: Stokes was now in a place where nobody, not least the shocked Australians, could touch him.

With 17 required, Marcus Harris dropped a tough chance at third man. When Simon Jones dropped a similar chance at Edgbaston in 2005, Michael Vaughan pinpointed it as the moment he stopped believing. Was that the moment Paine did, too? Certainly as Stokes crashed the next two deliveries for four there was a sense that Australia had squandered their last big chance to win the match and secure the Ashes. But we were wrong. 

The following over, Cummins clipped Leach on the pad. Despondent and desperate, Paine called for the review. It was a decision that would cost them the match. 

With eight runs required, Stokes smote Lyon back over his head for six. And only now did he begin to tighten a little. Two balls later, a reverse sweep looking for the gap at backward point, only to find Cummins in that position. Yet Leach had charged up the pitch in search of a single, and now was marooned, yards adrift. Stokes turned away, unable to look, unable to contemplate the moment when all his hard work would come to nothing. 

And Lyon dropped the ball. With Leach miles out of his ground, Lyon dropped the ball. With the throw hard and at a comfortable height, Lyon dropped the ball. With England one run short of Australia’s total and the Ashes in the bag, Lyon dropped the ball. It was a moment you knew would pass immediately into the annals of Ashes infamy, a moment Lyon himself will remember and relive until the day he dies. And as the crowd roared, there was a sense that Australia had squandered their last big chance to win the match and secure the Ashes. But we were wrong. 

Stokes celebrates after hitting the winning runs (Reuters)

For the very next ball, Stokes went for the conventional sweep, missed, and was cleaned up on the front pad. Lyon howled at umpire Joel Wilson, a howl of anguish as much as of appellation, a plea to be saved from the fate he had dreamed for himself. In a decision that may well end up changing the course of Lyon’s life, Wilson shook his head. Australia had used up their last review on a frippery in the previous over. They had none left. And Wilson, predictably, had been wrong. Stokes was out.

Did anyone on the Australian team remember anything that happened next? Here is what happened next: Leach nudged the ball for a single, his first run in more than an hour’s batting. Stokes cut for four to win the game. Australian fans in the stands held their heads and held back tears. With a grim dignity, Paine gathered himself up and shook Stokes’s hand. Generously, Lyon followed him. The crowd did not invade the field: a lot has changed since 1981, and health and safety regulations are one of them. But they leapt and roared and embraced and glared at each other with wide-eyed wonder. Had that really happened? And had they really been there?

It’s a few hours later, and I’m still not sure I know the answer. England are world champions, and the Ashes are alive, and England just put on 76 for the last wicket to beat Australia after being bowled out for 67 in their first innings. You could compile and organise all the strokes of outrageous luck and superhuman skill that got them there, but you suspect it still wouldn’t make much sense. You could lose yourself in a blizzard of statistics, argue with salty England-haters on the internet, make indiscriminate noises at family members, and it still wouldn’t do justice to this game. You could ask whether, on balance, we were right to write off a team that has done almost everything in its power to be written off, except lose the Ashes. But it still wouldn’t explain a thing. I was wrong about this team, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one. But humble pie has never tasted so sweet.

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