A wide ball cut disdainfully for four, and that was it. Ben Stokes’ final act on one of the greatest days in Test cricket history, pulling off a miracle to cement his place in the folklore of English cricket. A coruscating knock cheered by a vociferous Headingly crowd that will be remembered for ages.
Before the start of day four, if someone would have told you that England are going to win this Test, the incredulity of the statement would have overwhelmed you. All factors were against the home side. The batting fragility and history: no English team had scored this much in the fourth innings. An Australian win was the likely result.
The day started with a disciplined bowling performance from the Aussies, bowling four maidens on the trot. Stokes got hit on the helmet by a Josh Hazlewood bouncer. A nervy start from England saw Joe Root succumb under pressure and David Warner’s individual brilliance just before when the new ball was due. In the partnership, Root and Stokes battled it out for 18 overs scoring 18 runs.
Unlike in the first innings, where Stokes got out flashing at a ball miles away from him, this was an innings of poise, calm, control and calculation. Taking attacking shots out of batting vocab in the beginning, defence shone more brightly than attack, and quite certainly, self-belief rose above insecurity. Stokes was 1 off 39, 2 off 66 and 3 off 73. Everywhere, everyone was shocked. You had to have been at Headingley to see how good it was.
Jonny Bairstow came out with positive intent and took the attack to Australian bowlers. Not only he neutralised the new ball threat but his intent also helped Stokes in finding much-needed momentum. Against new ball, England scored 62 runs in ten overs. By lunchtime, England were 238 for four and hope was rekindled.
The Aussie bowlers made a terrific comeback after lunch. Relentless pressure exerted saw England lose five for 48. With nine down for 286 and 73 still needed, it seemed that all hope had faded. But Stokes decided to take on this much-vaunted Australian attack.
In the biggest summer in English cricket history, Stokes has stood head and shoulders above the rest. A month back he was fighting for the World Cup glory at Lord’s, a week back scored a magnificent hundred to save the Test for England at the same venue. With the Ashes on the line, the onus was once again on his shoulders, this time at the hotbed of Yorkshire cricket.
Nathan Lyon, who tormented him at the start of the innings, was launched for two sixes over his head followed by an outrageous reverse sweep for a six towards the western terrace. At this point, people started sensing that they are in for a Ben Stokes special. With each boundary scored, each ball defended, came the triumphalism of celebrations and roar of a partisan crowd even knowing that one good ball will end it all.
Not so long ago Kusal Perera stunned South Africa in the fourth innings. Perera and Vishwa Fernando put together 78 as Sri Lanka recovered from 226 for 9 to reach the victory target of 304. Flashes of that innings began to hit.
Pat Cummins was scooped for six. Hazlewood brought in was greeted with a boundary which took Stokes to a magnificent century but Stokes didn’t celebrate. His eyes fixed upon the next 33 runs he had to score, his mind visualizing about where to score. Next ball, a low full toss from Hazlewood paddled for six. Nineteen from the over and momentum was with the home side.
"I didn't really care," he said later about reaching his century. "Personal milestones, especially in that sort of situation, mean absolutely nothing. There were still a lot more runs to get; I wasn't bothered about how many I had."
Stokes’ onslaught left Aussies baffled. It felt like he was finding gaps at will and Tim Paine had no answers. Towards the end opportunities came their way but they couldn’t cash in. Marcus Harris dropped Stokes, Nathan Lyon missed a run-out chance amid chaos followed by a pointless review which cost Australia big time.
Huge credit must also go to Jack Leach for sticking with Stokes. He is a better batsman than some would give him credit for. He gets in line, fights his corner and is harder to get out than you would think. Most of the time he was seen cleaning his glasses, scored one run and yet it is probably the most precious run he will make in his life.
If a cricketer is lucky, a moment of such brilliance comes once in a lifetime but Stokes just had two in two months. With Ashes well and truly alive, there is still plenty to play for and Stokes would be at the forefront of it both with the bat and ball when the battle resumes at the Old Trafford.