Rorke’s Drift. Dunkirk. Headingley 2019. The sportswriters stopped short of comparing the fourth day of this Ashes Third Test to Thermopylae, but the military analogies and journalistic grandiosities were out in full force. Ben Stokes, our carrot-topped Leonidas, hogged the back pages, and in many instances the front pages, after an astonishing performance with the bat, almost single-handedly winning the Test and levelling the Ashes. Eleven fours and eight sixes for an eventual score of 135 not out: even the numbers don’t do justice to the audacity, calm under pressure and sheer ability that Stokes demonstrated on that sunny afternoon in Leeds.
What makes the story all the more amazing is how badly England had started the Test, having been bowled out for 67 in their first innings, a pitiful score for a side which had won the World Cup just six weeks previously. The fourth day also began inauspiciously, with a slew of maiden overs and the growing certainty that Australia would retain the urn.
By the time England’s last man, the bespectacled Jack Leach, stepped up to the crease, the batting side still required 73 runs to tie the series 1-1. Australia, by contrast, needed a single wicket to claim the Ashes, only Leach and Stokes standing in their way.
Then, something brilliant happened. Stokes abandoned his previous caution and racked up a series of boundaries, some trickling to the base of the rope, others soaring defiantly over. With 118 overs gone, he switched stance and executed an ambitious reverse sweep from Nathan Lyon’s bowling, sending the ball into the stands for six. Now, just fifty runs were needed.
Had either of the last two batsman got out at this point, it would still have been regarded as a heroic effort against supposedly insurmountable odds. Stokes wasn’t done, though. Three overs later and he had reached his century, reacting only with a perfunctory nod, knowing there were still 21 runs to make.
Television cameras panned to Australian supporters looking on aghast from the stands, like scowling fruit in their yellow and green. They had come to watch an execution and now the hangman was in trouble. The tension rose as England benefited from two strokes of luck, Lyon missing an easy stumping before some questionable umpiring from Joel Wilson when the visiting team had squandered their final review.
Leach’s role in the partnership was not to hit sixes, but instead to enable Stokes, the far superior batsman, to do that himself. The number 11 put in an unselfish, sensible showing, polishing his glasses between balls in what may well become one of the iconic images of the sporting year. Leach scored one run, but it was the run that levelled the scores. After that, there was never any doubt that Stokes would win the game, thumping the ball through the covers and raising both arms aloft as he finally succumbed to emotion.
Stokes has since been lauded by multiple commentators for playing ‘the greatest ever innings by an Englishman’, been compared to Botham and Flintoff, and brought a game usually confined to old men and posh boys to the masses.
He was charged less than a year ago with ‘bringing the game into disrepute’ following the 2017 scuffle outside a Bristol nightclub which saw him temporarily banned from the England set-up, but this glorious summer, in which he also starred in the victorious World Cup campaign, has delivered redemption. Stokes only moved to the UK from New Zealand aged 12, and, alongside the Barbadian-born Jofra Archer, is now the figurehead for a diverse and talented England team.
He insists that his heroics at Headingley ‘will all be forgotten’ if Australia win the Fourth Test at Old Trafford, but he couldn’t be more wrong. Whatever the outcome of the series, Stokes’s performance will be one for the ages.
Image: Ben Sutherland via Flickr