At Lunch on Friday afternoon, England were in total meltdown. Six wickets down with just forty odd on the board in reply to Australia’s modest 176 made it felt as though the Ashes were half way back to down under. By the time England were coming out to bat for a second time to chase down 359 to save the series, the whole thing felt very futile. Then out came Ben Stokes.
The fourth and penultimate day in Leeds saw England resuming on 150–3. Stokes had truly dug in the night before, chalking up just 2 runs off 50 deliveries whilst captain Joe Root kept the scoreboard ticking. Over 200 runs were required for victory and it started well. The runs were being chipped away at with relative ease, until Root was caught at slip by Warner trying to hit Lyon down the ground. Not to worry though, still plenty of batting to come right?
Jonny Bairstow was next in and initially he looked to be picking up where his captain left off. The Yorkshireman put on 86 for the fifth wicket to move England to within 115 of victory. He couldn’t turn his hard fought 36 into something more reflective of his efforts and he departed playing a poor shot, edging behind. This triggered a collapse of four wickets for 35 runs in 15 overs, leaving England on the brink. Jack Leach made his way to the crease with 74 needed to win the Test.
How much longer could England’s 10th wicket partnership hold the Australian tide back? Time would tell. It was probably at this point when Ben Stokes realised any chance of that slimmest of slim England victories rested on his head.
The following hour of cricket will go down in history as arguably the best in history. Stokes threw off the shackles of Test match batting and moved into the one-day form which has made him a feared name in white ball cricket.
His choice of shots at first reflected a man who knew it was hit or bust, but as that finish line grew tantalisingly Stokes grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. A six flicked off his pads, followed by further expeditions into the Headingly crowd off the bowling of Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon moved England along nicely in the mid-afternoon Yorkshire sunshine.
This innings had lots of skill and determination from both Stokes and Leach, but the luck helped. Whether it was the dropped catch from Marcus Harris out in the deep or the glaring missed run out from Lyon, Australia had their chances to take the winning wicket. On another day they would have had it well before the all-important runs were struck. Yet the Gods of cricket were smiling on England. Stokes was cutting through the Aussies like a knife through the last of the Vegemite whilst Jack Leach was digging in at the other end.
You will not see another test innings like this one, and if you do you would put money on Stokes repeating his feat. The noise when the winning runs were hit was enough to give even the ficklest of England fans came out in goose bumps. The sheer joy from Stokes and Leach contrasting with the overwhelming anguish from the Australians sums up all that is great about the Ashes. The highs and lows of a five-test series are mirrored by no other world sport.
It is all square at 1–1 after the 3rd test in Leeds but the psychological advantage is with England going into the penultimate showdown at Old Trafford. A victory against the odds and with both sides having big gun players set to return, the 2019 Ashes is well and truly in full swing.