An Ashes Test for the ages – an English man for the ages

Ben Stokes.Celebration.Ashes_.PA_

A friend of mine had tickets to day three of the third Ashes Test at Headingley and we joked after the ludicrous 67 all-out that at least he’d get to see a bit of everything on the Saturday.

He’d get to see a spate of genuine Test-level batting as Australia built a lead, and he’d also get to see a host of wickets tumble when England inevitably folded like a deck chair.

But perhaps most importantly, he’d at least get to actually see some cricket unlike those poor unfortunate souls who bought tickets for the Sunday.

The prospect of England making it to day four seemed about as far away as Christmas, never mind actually winning the damn match.

I’ve never been so pleased to be oh so wrong.

Day four started with English hopes high of regaining parity in this most-ridiculous of series. To say those hopes came true would be like reading the first page of a novel then skipping to the last. A year’s worth of drama unfolded in the four-and-a-half hours of action that transpired between England starting the day on 156-3 and ending it on 362-9.

Trying to cajole that action into a nice and neat article is the devil’s own work, but here’s our attempt at crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s.

An initial influx of maidens built pressure and captain Joe Root fell after adding just two runs to his overnight score. It left England with the prospect of trying to resuce the Ashes with what essentially amounted to Ben Stokes and a bunch of one-day batsmen in a situation that very much cried out for Test-match experience.

It came as little surprise then, to see the run-rate accelerate amid a flurry of boundaries off the bat of a counter-attacking Jonny Bairstow. If in doubt, go with what brought you to the dance and the Yorkshireman fought fire with fire… for a time. Stokes, seemingly unshackled after compiling his slowest ever Test fifty, followed suit.

Nerves turned into hopes and hopes morphed into expectations as the Aussie three-pronged seam attack appeared to be wilting under the thrill-a-minute shenanigans of Stokes and Bairstow.

At one stage during the 86-run partnership, England even became favourites on the WinViz predictor – a position they would not hold again until the final few overs after Bairstow wafted at one of the worst deliveries Josh Hazlewood had bowled in the Test. His ODI methods got him to 36, but his ODI methods also got him out.

Next, it was Buttler’s turn, but before it could ever begin, a classic English mix-up with Stokes produced an inexplicable run-out given the circumstances.

Ben Stokes Jos Buttler run out Ashes PA

Pressure. England were capitulating under it once more.

Archer strode to the crease and seemed to be in two minds from the get go. He’d hit a four and receive a standing ovation. He’d play a forward defensive… and receive a standing ovation. Archer is one of those cricketers that seems capable of handling any occasion – but his Jekyll and Hyde batting performance resembled that of a man who didn’t quite grasp the gravity of the occasion.

He crashed two fours to the fence before Stokes had a calming word in the middle. Two blocks later it was as if those words had been resigned to the history books as he slog-swept into the waiting hands of Travis Head in the deep. It was not what Ben Stokes wanted, and more importantly, not what England needed.

Broad departed without troubling the scorers and so it fell to Jack Leach – the hero of the Lord’s Test versus Ireland.

The difference between that day and this (besides the obvious: occasion, bowling attack etc), was that versus Ireland, Leach did not need to survive. Everything he provided on that day was a bonus. If he’d have fallen cheaply no one would’ve batted an eye and the world would have continued to spin.

This time around, he NEEDED to survive. And survive he did.

Ben Stokes Jack Leach Ashes PA

Leach contributed just a solitary run in his 76-run partnership with Stokes. It was the tying run, and will probably go down as the most important run he will ever score when his career is all said and done.

England had to ride their luck, of that there is no doubt.

Stokes survived yet another poor umpiring decision from Joel Wilson while their target for victory was in the single figures. Replays produced three reds, but Australia had unforgivably thrown away their final review on a hope and a prayer of an LBW decision that pitched a considerable distance outside leg stump soon before.

A number of catching opportunities were either shelled, or landed the width of a wire beyond the fielder’s hands on the boundary as Stokes could do nothing but hope his strike was crisp and clean enough.

Nathan Lyon had the Ashes within his grasp, but could not gather a run-out chance cleanly as a desperate Jack Leach scampered back in to his crease.

In the end though, it came down to Stokes, and England’s man for the big occasion once again came through where so many others could not.

Ben Stokes Ashes PA

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the man who not so long ago was facing criminal charges for affray and had his participation in an Ashes series removed as a result.

Around 3pm, Stokes had moved into the favourites slot in the annual ‘sports personality of the year’ award. That was before England’s victory had been achieved – an indication of just how heroic his efforts were despite the fact victory had still to be secured.

Upon victory, Stokes struggled to put his emotions into words in his post-match interview as the realistion of what he had accomplished dawned upon him.

Opposition captain Tim Paine described the innings as ‘the best Test innings he’s ever seen’.

We’ve witnessed something very special in the 2019 Ashes, and thanks to Ben Stokes, we have two more memory-making opportunities still to come.