Oh hell, just call it all off now. Forget the Premier League, cancel the Rugby World Cup, bin the world athletics championship and whatever else we’re supposed to get excited about in the coming weeks and months. And for goodness sake, junk the Hundred too. They’ll all pale after this Headingley Test, when Ben Stokes, that most unlikely saint, worked the second of the two miracles he needs for his canonisation. This was the innings of his lifetime, and everyone else’s too, certainly the best anyone has played for England since Ian Botham overturned odds of 500-1 when he made his unbeaten 149 at this very same ground back in 1981, and, sober judges reckoned, perhaps even better than that.
“The most extraordinary innings ever played by an Englishman‚” was all Alastair Cook had to say after Stokes had smacked that last four away. Never mind everyone else, even Stokes found the finish too excruciating to watch.
He couldn’t even bring himself to look at most of the final hour of it, when his partner, England’s No 11 batsman Jack Leach, faced up to Australia’s bowlers from behind his foggy spectacles. He kept having to stop play so he could mop them off. Whenever Leach had the strike, Stokes squatted on his haunches and stared at the ground, too scared to look up. Until he decided to steal the single that drew the scores level, he hadn’t even been bothering to stand up when the bowlers ran in. He needn’t have worried so much. Leach saw them all off. “Jack,” Stokes said afterwards, “has got some serious bollocks.”
To unravel it all you have to go way back to the very first afternoon of the match, when Stokes bowled poorly, nine overs for 45, and then stop off on the second morning too, when he was caught at first slip playing one of the worst shots he has ever attempted.
Something in him snapped when that happened. After the tea break later that same day, Stokes started bowling from the Football Stand End and refused to stop until the Australians were finished off. He flogged himself through 25 overs in a row, breaking only when Jofra Archer replaced him for four balls. Then Archer broke down with cramp, and Stokes came right back into the attack.
Stokes bowled on all the next morning, too. It was almost as if he was punishing himself. By the end of the innings he had bowled Travis Head, and bounced out Matthew Wade and Pat Cummins. And even after all that England still needed 359 runs, more than they had ever made to win a Test, more, in fact, than anyone ever has in this country except for the Australians here at Headingley back in 1948. And they had Don Bradman.
Stokes came in late on Saturday evening, when England were 141 for three, Joe Root 64 not out at the other end. He played stone sober that night, and barely attempted a scoring shot. There was a clip off his hips for one single, an inside-edge past short leg for another, and that was it. He had made two runs from 50 balls when they drew stumps, had two off 66 when Root was caught behind off Nathan Lyon right before Australia took the new ball on Sunday morning. He was going so slowly then that even Geoff Boycott began to worry that he was being too obdurate. It took him 74 balls to hit his first boundary. No Englishman has taken longer to make it to double figures in more than 25 years.
Then Jonny Bairstow blew in, like the wind picking up before a storm. He started belting that new ball all over, and in a crucial spell before lunch, the two of them put on 60-odd runs in just ten overs or so. And all of a sudden the score was travelling so fast that impossible distance between England and victory started to shrink, below 200, 180, 160, 140, 120, until just as it was coming into sight on the horizon, Bairstow was caught at slip. Then Head ran out Jos Buttler, and Chris Woakes thrashed a catch to short extra cover, and England had three wickets left and needed the best part of another 100 runs.
Same old England. Everyone who has ever watched them play knew which way the game was going. Not that they’d given up on the Western Terrace, where, after five hours of rounds, they were chanting‚“stand up, if you love Ben Stokes,” and “shoes off, if you love Ben Stokes”, in defiance, rather than celebration, hope rather than expectation. Of course it’s the hope that gets you in the end. By the time Leach arrived, everyone else had given up, England still needed another 73 runs. What happened next made no damn sense. Not by my logic, yours, or anyone else’s but his. The game isn’t supposed to work this way, outside of the daydreams we have when we’re kids first falling in love with it.
The first two sixes felt like a last retort to the Australians; it was the third, a switch hit over cover, that seemed to cast the spell, and the fourth, scooped over his own head to fine leg, that suggested some powerful magic had taken hold, and the bumbling umpires and fumbling fielders were all caught up in it. So even when he was out, lbw when England needed two more runs, he somehow got away with it. Stokes did not even stop to acknowledge the hundred he made when he cracked four through long-on, but pressed on, sixes were hit deep into the Western Terrace, fours belted so hard they were puncturing gaps in the nine-man cordon Tim Paine had set on the boundary’s edge. Another six, away down the ground, and, at the end of it all, that last match-winning four.
At 67 all out England were finished, and the Ashes gone. They had reached the very bottom of the pit. Down there in the black, where people lose their careers, Stokes looked around and found, deep within himself, the resolve to lead his team right back up and out again. So, yes, throw out your whites, burn your bats, scrap your Wisdens. I’m off to smash my laptop. It’ll never be better than it was this sunny Sunday afternoon in Headingley.