At 16:17 on a warm summer’s Sunday in a sold-out, sun-kissed Headingley, Ben Stokes achieved the impossible. His Cricket World Cup final exploits six weeks ago had already ensured his place in English cricketing history, but this was something that little bit extra special.
Sport can do things to you that nothing else can. Test cricket, the Ashes – they can do things to you that no other sporting occasion can.
The beauty of the purest form of cricket is that it is a marathon, not a sprint and momentum can swing in an instant. On Friday England were abject, bowled out by Australia for 67 and facing the prospect of the old enemy retaining the Ashes before the end of August. Even when the Aussies were bowled out for 246 in their second innings, anyone who tells you they thought England stood a chance is a liar. How could a team who played so many poor shots and collapsed with such ease, possibly pull off the highest run chase in English Test cricket history, and the third highest of all time anywhere in the world?
Ben Stokes didn’t really care about all that. He didn’t even care when he reached his 50, or his century. There was barely a flicker of acknowledgement when the Headingley crowd rose as one to illustrate their adoration for Stokes. He was focused only on the part of the scoreboard that displayed the number of runs England needed to win, to achieve the impossible.
That said, part of the reason Sunday 25th August will forever be etched into the memories of English cricket fans is partly because of Stokes’ personal story. These past 6 weeks have been quite simply incredible, playing the pivotal role in England’s first ever World Cup win and then single-handedly saving the Ashes. But it hasn’t always been so rosy for the Kiwi-born all-rounder.
On the field, Stokes was distraught in 2016, when his final over in the T20 World Cup final was hit by Carlos Braithwaite for four consecutive sixes to give West Indies the title.
More importantly, off the field, following an ODI against the West Indies in September 2017, Stokes was arrested after a street brawl near a nightclub in Bristol. Video footage was then released which showed Stokes punching two men. Despite protesting his innocence, Stokes played no part in the 2017-18 Ashes series Down Under and his long-term place in the side came under intense scrutiny.
Stokes was charged with affray in January 2018 and eventually acquitted in August last year. A month later Stokes was reprimanded by the England and Wales Cricket Board for bringing the game into disrepute and retrospectively banned for eight matches.
It’s hard to believe that twelve months later Stokes has now ensured his presence on the pantheon of British sporting legends. He’s certainly up there alongside fellow cricketing all-rounders Botham and Flintoff, up there with greats from other sports such as Bobby Moore, Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Murray.
For a cricketer famed for his attacking style of play, the very fact he had remained at the crease for so long in England’s second innings is testament to his fierce determination and focus.
His 219-ball knock had so many different parts to it. On Saturday evening, coming in during the last hour of play, Stokes knew that his only goal was to just not get out. Come the end of play, he had faced 50 balls and scored 2 runs. For a man who holds the record for England’s fastest ever Test double century, the fastest ever Test match 250, the highest score for a Test batsman batting at number six and the most runs scored by an individual in the morning session of a Test match, staying patient while leaving and defending was extremely impressive.
On Sunday, following Joe Root’s early dismissal, Stokes was joined in the middle by Jonny Bairstow. Between them they attacked the new ball, sharing a stand of 86 before Bairstow was caught by Marcus Laubschagne off the bowling of Josh Hazlewood.
Once Bairstow was back in the pavilion, Stokes showed maturity and intelligence by slowing down once more and not giving his wicket away. However, nobody could stay with him at the other end. Jos Buttler was run out for 1 and Chris Woakes departed for the same score. Jofra Archer offered some brief respite, but he was caught on the boundary for 15 and Stuart Broad lasted just two balls. Suddenly it was 286-9 and England still needed 73 runs, with just 1 wicket remaining.
At this point Stokes started batting in a world of his own. No matter what Australia’s impressive bowling attack threw at him, he simply hit them all over the place. Nathan Lyon is a world-class spinner, yet Stokes treated him like he was a village part-timer. At one point he reverse-swept him for six, the ball landing right in the middle of the Western Terrace, much to the delight of the locals in there who were around eight pints deep at that point.
Off the last 42 balls, Stokes hit 74 runs. At one stage he hit 28 off 8. He reached his century, but cared not one jot. His job was only complete once he had, once again, dragged England over the line.
It would be amiss not to mention the heroic performance of Jack Leach at this point. He dutifully faced 17 balls over the course of his hour at the crease, scoring just a single run. It was his one run that tied the scores and allowed Stokes to blast one final ball from Pat Cummins and achieve the impossible.
It was a game of unparalleled ups and downs, twists and turns, highs and lows. For Stokes it was the final chapter of his own personal redemption. No matter what happens in the rest of this series, the cricketing summer of 2019 will forever belong to Benjamin Andrew Stokes. If the Barmy Army get their way, come next year it will be Sir Ben. Not that the title matters really. After all, sport can do things to you nothing else can. Test cricket can do things to you that no other sport can. Ben Stokes can do things nobody else in the world can.