Alex Massie

Ben Stokes, hero of the new miracle of Headingley

Ben Stokes, hero of the new miracle of Headingley
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The Oval, 1902. Headingley 1981. Melbourne 1982. Edgbaston 2005. And now Headingley 2019. Move over Sir Ian Botham, you’ve got company and there’s a new king in the north. This astonishing, heart-stopping, game will forever be remembered as Stokes’s match and recalled for as long as test cricket is still played and savoured. For a game perpetually teetering on the edge of crisis, cricket’s in pretty good shape when it comes at you like this.

Ben Stokes has now, as everyone agrees, played two once-in-a-lifetime innings in six weeks. The World Cup final was one thing; this was improbability on an altogether different, still more elevated, level. England’s final pair, Stokes and dear Jack Leach, added 76 runs to see England home. More than the entire XI managed in their miserable first innings of 67. That 67 is the lowest innings made by a victorious side since, I think, the nineteenth century. When England recovered from being dismissed for 85 against Ireland last month that was one thing but this was something else altogether.

These were, then, almost unprecedented moments and certainly something beyond the experience of anyone alive today. Thousands more will claim, in the years ahead, to have been present at Headingley today than was actually the case. But this is a legend that cannot grow as it ages for it is unsurpassingly large already. Sir Alistair Cook suggested Stokes’ innings might be the greatest ever played by an Englishman and, frankly, it is hard to think of anything which eclipses it. You didn’t need to be in Leeds today to feel the history being made.

This was an act of the greatest larceny won by a cricketer with the greatest nerve of anyone playing the game today. When resistance seemed almost futile, Stokes was there and when astonishing victory was at last in sight Stokes was still there. He made 2 from his first 50 deliveries and then more than 70 from his final 42. In that respect this was the complete innings and one purer, and even greater, than Botham’s heroics in 1981.

For as long as Stokes was there you sensed that England still had a chance. Sure, they had never previously chased 359 to win a test match but so what? The sun was out, the pitch fair, and records are there to be tilted at anyway. Even so, most chases end in failure and England’s batting, so brittle for so long, hardly inspired confidence. But sometimes adversity is inspiration and this was one of those days.

Imagine being Jack Leach too. He arrived at the wicket with England still needing 73 and when Stokes lashed the winning runs through cover Leach was still there: one not out. As great an innings of its type as any in the long story of English cricket. Leach faced seventeen deliveries, knowing that a single mistake would bring the whole innings toppling down, leaving England empty and Australia deservedly jubilant. In some sense the pressure was greater on Leach than Stokes for Leach could let his partner down.

And of course England benefited from good fortune too. A dropped catch; a bungled run-out; a mistaken umpiring decision rendered utterly significant by Australia’s mismanagement of their reviews. But so be it; sometimes you make your own luck and a cliche is only a cliche because it contains an essential truth.

But what a warrior Stokes is. He emptied himself for the cause and his daring was breathtaking. Courage, Hemingway noted, is grace under pressure and sometimes there really is just a guy on the wall who makes all the difference.

Slowly but surely the impossible was rendered just less than impossible and that sense of gathering history was enough to bring much of Britain to a standstill this afternoon; not quite able to believe what it was witnessing or listening to on the wireless. Hope mingled with the knowledge hope was hopeless; at some point reality, which is to say normality, must reassert itself. And yet hope could not be snuffed out as easily as that even if, this being English cricket, hope always wears a raincoat just in case.

Only 14 tests matches have ended with a one wicket victory and, curiously, two of them have come along this year. Sri Lanka’s victory against South Africa earlier this year was almost as remarkable as England’s today. That required a record-smashing last wicket partnership of more than 70 too. There are, then, few truly new things in cricket, a sport in which the unprecedented has a knack of being precedented.

Even so this was something different; a moment in which the Ashes could have been lost and, with them, an England team destroyed. This was the most improbable last chance saloon of them all and everything about it counted.

What a daft game cricket can be. The time matters. Even a one day affair is a drama played out over more than six hours but a great test match elevates the drama to an exquisitely agonising level. Five days - or four in this case - of ebb and flow, of triumph and despair, in which not just the skills of the protagonists are revealed but aspects of their essential character too. There is little like it in sport anywhere else and, not for the first time, much of the country now finds itself pondering the inadequacy or impoverishment of a life untouched by the drama of cricket at its best.

Of course it’s not always like this. But then it doesn’t need to be and, indeed, shouldn’t be. It is the peaks that give meaning to the troughs. In its purest moments sport surpasses even great art and on days like these the spectacle is greater than a mere matter of winning and losing. That said, if there must be a losing side on days like these please lord make it the Australians.

England’s first innings was, in my view, worse than winning the World Cup was nice. Today that mighty triumph feels as though it has been eclipsed itself. England’s resurrection in this match was the kind of thing you can never forget even as you cannot quite believe you saw it happen.

It does not matter that these are two deeply flawed sides for they are evenly-matched and equally flawed. That, though, has been the story of this great old rivalry. There have been 70 Ashes series and Australia have won 33 and England 32 with the others drawn. Right now, thanks to Ben Stokes and despite the looming threat of Steve Smith’s return, it feels as though England will draw level with their old adversary.

What a match. What an innings. What a cricketer Ben Stokes has become. There is an iron to his batting this summer that will never be forgotten. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t need to make sense. The summer of Stokes, indeed, and the rest of us are just here to enjoy it and to wonder just quite how it happened.