Ben Stokes Heroics in the Third Ashes Test Made All the Difference
This is the story of a third Ashes Test in one English summer, where England came in with their backs against the wall.
They were down in the series, after having lost the first Test and having just drawn the second at Lord’s. And then miraculously, against all the odds, they recovered — oh and how they recovered — to pip Australia in the third Test at Headingley thanks to the heroics of a phenomenal England allrounder who chipped in with both bat and ball. But enough about Ian Botham’s Ashes heroics of 1981.
This is actually the summer of a man born in the Antipodes, who first sent his birth country of New Zealand and then arch-rivals Australia ‘down under’ in two very different matches, different formats, but in a similar high stakes (or high Stokes, if you don’t mind) encounter.
Forgive me for puns, for simple words and lucid sentences do not quite suffice in trying to capture the essence of Ben Stokes. The magic of words doesn’t light up the way Stokes’ pyrotechnics do; but as the song goes, words are all I have.
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect has been described as ‘the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state’. But enough of science, this is a sports article. In short, a very small change in initial conditions had created a significantly different outcome.
And just as we witnessed at the Super-Over inflicted final of the 2019 Cricket World Cup at Lord’s, Test cricket saw the little innocuous incidents snowball into something much bigger. Was Australia’s Achilles Heel exposed when a Pat Cummins delivery struck Jack Leach quite literally on his Achilles Heel? Was Tim Paine perhaps too premature in using his referral? The ball pitched outside leg stump, but a few minutes later, another leg was struck, this time that of Stokes by the wily Nathan Lyon.
Many Australian fans cried ‘yes’ but the umpire said ‘no’, and lo and behold, with no reviews left, agony and anguish evinced as Lyon succumbed to a despondent state on the floor and Tim felt pain (yes, pun very firmly intended). A referral in hand would have sent the Australians into raptures, the little Ashes urn would have been back in the Southern Hemisphere and Australia would have rewritten their own Edgbaston 2005 like two-run win and perhaps exorcise the demons once and for all of that fatal Michael Kasprowicz glance.
Did it slip out of their hands at that point, or was it earlier, the same way it slipped out of Marcus Harris’ hands in the deep? Harris, who in the Boxing Day Test of 2018 had pouched two very impressive back-back to catches to dismiss Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara for ducks, couldn’t hold on to perhaps the most defining catch of the series. And speaking of being unable to clutch onto the ball, one Lyon fumble for that all-important run-out allowed proved the final match-changing play on an epic final day at Headingley.
Even Lance Klusener wouldn’t wish that on his worst nemesis, would he?
So were the cricket gods crazy, sadistic or just English? Surely they couldn’t despise the Antipodeans so much, to allow this to go on the second time in a single summer at the hands of Stokes?
That dogged tenacity in putting a price on your wicket yet giving yourself the license to unleash and decorate your own wagon wheel — that is what Stokes did on Sunday at Headingley.
That uncharismatic look of gloom on his face while Leach, England’s No 11, took strike spoke volumes of the situation. Yes, Stokes knew that all it would take is one peach to dismiss Leach, but Leach got stuck (yes, pun again) to score the most important run of his life (even though his 92 as nightwatchman at Lord’s in the four-day Test against Ireland was very handy).
But juxtapose that look of worried despondency with Stokes’ brazenness to brandish the bat to suave spin or to simmering pace. Stokes is a story where both the technique of Tests and the temerity of T20 are used as fine weapons in his repertoire. In a nutshell, that’s Stokes for you.
Australia didn’t choke. No, it is just that England had Stokes. And it was he who lit this fire of belief. With nine wickets down and their backs to the wall, most great batsman and great teams put up a fight, but it’s that rare belief that rests in an unusual place. It is what makes the difference. The actual belief that such a result is tenable, and that one can pull it off — that is the defining image of Stokes in this English summer.
The most memorable of Test series often contain great turnarounds that begin in a single Test, and perhaps even in one innings. Botham’s Headingley heist of 1981, Geraint Jones’ catch at Edgbaston in 2005 and VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid’s heroics at Eden Gardens in 2001. It remains to be seen if England do make this their turnaround Test, or if Australia prove that one fine swallow doesn’t make an English summer.
But there are two things for sure. One, that at this rate, Stokes would surely be placed in the pantheon of English all-round greats along with Botham and Andrew Flintoff. There are already facetious mentions for a knighthood based on his World Cup and Headingley exploits. Who is to say facetious won’t become factual if Stokes’ does a Botham ’81 or a Flintoff ’05 in the remainder of this series?
And two, to state the profound and yet the obvious — Test cricket is alive and well.
Originally published at https://www.cricketcountry.com on August 26, 2019.