There are jaw-dropping performances in sport and then there is the one that Ben Stokes served up at Headingley on Sunday.
When all hope seemed lost, and with it the Ashes, England’s talismanic all-rounder held his nerve with an unbeaten 135 that sealed a thrilling one-wicket win over Australia and one of the most remarkable heists in cricket history.
Set an improbable 359 to win and reeling from a paltry 67 all out in their first innings, Joe Root’s side had battled bravely in the chase. But they still looked dead and buried when Jack Leach, the bespectacled No11, joined Stokes with 73 more runs required. Lose and Australia would retain the urn. But Stokes, already England’s man of the summer after the World Cup final heroics that saw him dubbed a “superhuman” by Eoin Morgan, donned the red cape once more with an astonishing blitz.
His partner held firm and the tourists ultimately cracked under pressure such that, against the odds, the Ashes are now level at 1-1 going into next week’s fourth Test in Manchester.
“I never gave up,” said Stokes, who was the first man in the ground to know the game was won when the ball flew off his flaming bat and raced to the cover boundary. “Walking off there at the end when the whole of Headingley was standing up and celebrating was a very special moment and something I had to try to take. Moments like that don’t come along very often. It was just an amazing game to be a part of. To be there at the end and still keep our Ashes hopes alive was a pretty special feeling.”
Root described Stokes as a “freak” after the close and did not feel hyperbolic. When asked if there was anything Stokes could not do, the England captain replied: “His handwriting is terrible, his language isn’t great either … but no, at the minute he seems to be able to do anything.” This was the highest successful run-chase in England’s history and the first time in 131 years that a side has been bowled out for such a lowly first-innings score and gone on to win. But Stokes insisted afterwards “it takes two to tango” amid strong praise for the resolve of Leach.
The Somerset spinner made 92 as a nightwatchman against Ireland this summer but his senior partner described his innings of one from 17 balls as “the most important” he will play in his career. It was not without drama, though, with Leach nearly run out looking for a single when England needed two to win, only for Nathan Lyon to fumble at the bowler’s stumps.
“I think Jack Leach must have been watching Monty Panesar at Cardiff in 2009,” said Stokes, citing another day of heroics from a No 11. “Nine times out of 10 Nathan Lyon would pick that ball up and take the stumps off. Players are under such pressure in crucial moments, especially at the highest level with what is on the line.”
The very next ball Stokes survived an lbw shout from Lyon that was shown to be out by technology. But with the umpire, Joel Wilson, unmoved and Australia burning their last review the over before, fortune was on England’s side. “It shows how crucial it is to make sure you use your reviews [properly],” said Stokes, who felt the Hawk-Eye simulation was wrong anyway.
Stokes, who began the day on two after blocking out 50 balls the previous evening, had been Herculean from the moment he gifted his wicket in England’s first innings, in effect sending down 24 overs in one spell across two days. Asked about the fuel for his performances, Stokes replied: “My wife and kids arrived at 10pm [on day two] and walked into me eating pasta in my boxer shorts. Last night I think had a knock-off Nando’s and two bars of Yorkie biscuit and raisin. And a couple of coffees this morning.”
Late on Sunday night, Stokes added on his Instagram: “I f*****g (don’t care if I get fined) love Test Match Cricket and I love englandcricket. mjleach17 is a legend”.