Ashes cricket is rightfully called the ‘Platinum Standard’ of Test cricket by all those who have had any affiliation with the sport’s longest and toughest format. The recently concluded third Ashes Test match between England and Australia was nothing short of a fairytale for Test cricket lovers as it highlighted pretty much every aspect of the game; from dramatic run-outs to huge sixes, from poor umpiring to lacklustre batting, from great spells of bowling to one of the best innings under pressure of all time. And at the centre of the entire game was one man-Benjamin Andrew Stokes. His never-say-die spirit and calm demeanour at the crease throughout the game will be remembered for many generations to come. From Sir Ian Botham’s performance in the 1980’s Ashes series to the famous 2005 Ashes Test which England won by 2 runs, this match and his knock rates right up there as one of the best (if not the best).
The tough batting conditions on Day 1 clearly provided a glimpse of what was to come as Australia were scuttled out for 179 on the first day, with only 3 batsmen getting into double digits. Jofra Archer was at his ruthless best on day one as he took the best figures of his short career (6-45) to prove that he is one for the future. It was only a gritty knock of 74 from Steve Smith’s replacement Marnus Labuschagne that ensured that Australia got to a total with some respectability. He, and David Warner who scored a vital 61, together contributed more than half of their team total.
However, nothing could have prepared the English fans for what came next on Day 2. Some great bowling from Josh Hazlewood, who took 5 wickets, and poor shot selection from the English batsmen, gave the result that England was destroyed for just 67, their worst total in the Ashes in nearly a hundred years. At that stage, it seemed like England had thrown away the match and would likely lose by a big margin. As the Aussie fans celebrated, the majority of the capacity crowd at Headingley was in a state of ominous gloom. The Australians piled on the agony for the English when they came out to bat as the duo of Marnus Labuschagne and Matthew Wade stitched together a vital stand of 66 to rescue them from a precarious position and reach 171/6 by the end of Day 2.
Day 3 dawned bright and sunny and Australia made use of the sunny conditions to add vital runs to their tally, eventually taking their overall lead to 358 before being bowled out. However, this would not have been possible without a crucial spell of bowling from Ben Stokes, who bowled his heart out and tirelessly chipped away at the Aussie batsmen on both Day 2 and on the morning of Day 3, taking the crucial wickets of Travis Head, Matthew Wade and Pat Cummins. The hosts, after lunch, lost their openers cheaply and it was only a fighting century partnership from Joe Root and Joe Denly that saw them end the day at 156/3.
That is where the genius known as Stokes came in. The innings of a lifetime began very slowly and cautiously. His first 100 balls saw him make fewer than 30 runs. He played out the good balls, left the ones outside off stump and punished the bad ones, the mark of a true Test batsman. His knock was initially reminiscent of the great Test players of old, grittily trudging along. But as wickets continued to fall around him, he realised that it had to be him and him alone. At 286/9, needing 73 more to win, Ben Stokes went into the ballistic mode. Occupying most of the strike, he launched into the Australian bowlers, depositing them into the stands almost at will. His partner, Jack Leach, faced just 17 balls for his 1 run. Stokes, on the other hand, went after every bowler who dared to bowl to him.
The elegance and flamboyance of the man were there for all to see. He only started to look nervous once the figure was down to under 20 runs needed. Fortune started to finally favour the English as the Aussies let down chance after chance and, in their desperation, threw away their only remaining review (which had major ramifications later when only 2 were required). The Australian fans, once loud and boisterous, suddenly started to quiet down as they realised that something greater than just cricket was happening; it was Fate itself. The Almighty had visibly blessed the man who had tried so hard to redeem himself after the World T20 Final of 2016 and off-field brawls. As Stokes hit six after six, they knew that they were witnessing a game for all ages; quite simply, it was history in the making.
A fairytale run from zero to hero, from English cricket’s greatest villain to its darling prodigy, from an aggressive boy to a mature man was completed when he hoisted a wide and rising Pat Cummins delivery and saw it going for four, saw the capacity crowd come to their feet and heard the roar of approval that saw him going down as the one, the only and the legend-in-the-making Ben Stokes.