Batting on 96, Ben Stokes was four runs away from a century while England required 37 more runs to salvage the 2019 Ashes for another Test. Nasser Hussain on commentary at that time said that Stokes will be eyeing those 37 runs rather than those four. And why not! A century would have earned Stokes only a consolatory pat on the back and a spot in cricket’s tragic heroes. He was eyeing something bigger – a permanent place in the cricketing folklore.
The first ball of Josh Hazlewood’s fresh spell, Stokes rocked back and pulled him through the long-on region to fetch four runs. The hundred was complete but his mission wasn’t. The batsman did not fist pump, did not raise his bat, did not remove his helmet, did not acknowledge cheers, did not wave to the teammates, he just kept going. 100 was just another number, 359 was all that mattered.
The tale of Stokes’ miracle will always begin at England being 286/9 with the agony of a 73-run defeat looming large. The context of the loss is heightened by the fact that a failure kills any chance of England gaining the Ashes. The drubbing would have highlighted the 67 all-out ignominy that the home side faced in the first innings. With only one ball separating Australia from retaining the urn, Stokes had to give his all to reverse the foregone conclusion.
Off-spinner Nathan Lyon was the obvious target for the muscular left-hander. An engrossing battle ensued as the offie tried to turn the ball away from Stokes’ reach with the batsman wanting to launch him into the stands. In the next two overs of Lyon, Stokes first adopted the safest route of smashing sixes – if there was one – going straight down the ground. After two successful strikes, the tattoed ginger cricketer executed a shot that screamed confidence.
Stokes changed his stance and slammed Lyon over the waiting deep point fielder with an outrageous right-handed slog sweep. That six brought out the loudest cheers from the Headingley crowd. The East Stand and the Western Terrace roared with greater amplitude than ever. It felt as if the ground was packed over capacity! A thousand of hands went up in the air and they would stay that way for the next 30 minutes or so.
With another audacious pull off Cummins, Stokes raced into the 90s. He then cracked another shot through long-on to land into three figures. Extraordinarily, the batsman followed this with two astounding sixes between square leg and deep mid-wicket – the first one was a half pick-up off a full-toss and the second soared into the western terrace. The victory was now 21 runs away.
While the game was heading towards a chaotic finish, an anti-climax was always around the corner. Stokes’ heroics could have been thwarted without him facing a ball. It was Jack Leach who ultimately fended out 17 balls while wiping his glasses. Leach’s 1 not out was arguably as important as his incredible 92 against Ireland at Lord’s. His sojourn at the crease was spread across 11 overs. Apart from his single that secured England a positive result, he made Australia burn a review on him that could have ended Stokes’ innings prematurely.
The team on the receiving end of Stokes onslaught, Australia strangely appeared lost. David Warner, brilliant at first slip throughout the Test, failed to grasp a difficult chance of Stokes when he was on 33. Marcus Harris dropped the same batsman with England 17 runs away. Two off the straight sixes sailed just over outstretched Hazlewood and Labuschagne stationed at the boundary. There were misfields that allowed fours. In the end moment, Lyon muffed a simple run-out chance. The most iconic point was when Stokes was plumb LBW with England still needing two runs but Australia had no reviews to go against umpire Joel Wilson’s decision.
Consecutive boundaries off Cummins and a six off Lyon in the super-dramatic over brought England on the cusp of an unimaginable victory. Stokes, who was on his haunches while watching Leach keep the game alive, knew this was his time to end this. Leach had just taken the score-levelling run. A month ago, Stokes was on strike when England needed two runs to win the World Cup off the last ball with number 11 at the other end. And here he was again.
This time, Stokes stood tall and crashed the wide delivery for a boundary to add an illustrious chapter in his legacy. At the completion of the task, he punched in the air and screamed with all his might. On this very ground, another English all-rounder had played a glorious hand in face of a defeat in 1981. Now, this was Ben Stokes’ time.
There is no doubt that till the time Ashes survive, Stokes’ 135 not out will be remembered fondly. His innings that saw a team winning after being bowled out below 70 for the first time in Test cricket since 1888, takes the same place on the pedestal as that of Brian Lara’s 153 or Kusal Perera’s 153. The screaming knock has earned Ben Stokes a permanent place in the cricketing folklore.