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Cricket news - The clarity and audacity of Ben Stokes
There were eight sixes, perfectly struck, perfectly out of reach. But it was the eighth of 11 fours when you knew.
They say the best players are just that because, along with the talent and unrivaled work ethic, they've got a nose for the extra bits. The add-ons that create legend. Sensing moments to seize. Spotting opportunities when others might have stopped looking. Keeping faith in causes that look lost. But most importantly, the see the bigger picture.
Across sports, great feats are spoken of by the protagonists with almost robotic recall. The air is still, the crowd mute, the colours monochrome - all dulled by the matter at hand. In keeping, Ben Stokes's eighth Test hundred, a second in as many Ashes Test, was treated as a nuisance. Shrugged off like cold call about PPI.
It came up with a rock-back-and-clout through long on off the first ball of a Josh Hazlewood over. Headingley burst at the seams in celebration. His partner Jack Leach, the number 11, wanted to embrace but had to make do with a glove punch. Stokes even looked a tad annoyed. Every wave of applause distracted from the matter at hand. England still needed 31 to keep the Ashes alive with just one wicket left.
When play got back underway, the next two balls went for sixes. A low full toss crouched and lifted over square leg, then an upright hoick of a length delivery - both ending up in the Western Terrace, who hadn't sat down since the century was made. With now 19 left for victory, They remained standing for the rest of the match.
England, fundamentally, are not a good Test side. But they are fun, and when they're not serving up mayhem, you get magic like this. A chase of 356, in the most do-or-die circumstances and so soon after stinking out the joint against an Australia side who will have slept soundly since rolling them in 167 balls the first time around. There'll be a lot of blank stares at ceilings tonight.
England's 67 all out in the first innings on Friday was their first double-figure score since Lord's in July. Sunday was English cricket's greatest moment since Lord's in July. There were shades of both here.
The collapse post-lunch of five for 41, which crushed the optimism whipped up during a captivating morning session. And Stokes. Body on fire in the 30-degree-heat; head very much in the freezer. England, somehow, coming through. Barest of margins, part deux.
No doubt the World Cup final heroics helped Stokes keep his head, because there were times today when a younger iteration would have lost his nerve and, subsequently, the game. The man you see today - the one plastered all over the front pages tomorrow for the third time in two years and second time for the right reasons - is much more mature, even if his dinner the night before of "a knock-off Nando's and a couple of chocolate and raisin Yorkies" suggests otherwise.
There were no overreactions to challenging moments. Calm was shown when, on two off 61 deliveries, Hazlewood rattled his cage with a bumper, knocking off the stem guards protecting his neck. When he ran out Jos Buttler - king of the chase where a white ball is concerned - there was no show of dissent.
On the second evening into the third morning, when he sent down 25 overs unchanged (with the night's kip, of course). He did not go searching for wickets, knowing Australia could pilfer some easy runs that way. That risk assessment is new addition to his batting.
After clearing his front leg to put Lyon into the Kirkstall Lane End, the off-spinner pulled his length back to hit the rough: just out of reach for Stokes to repeat the straight hit and, given the footmarks outside the left-hander's off stump, impose a grave tax on any attempted square shot.
But Stokes had already clocked it, and there was no way he would risk the top-edge by attempting an orthodox sweep. So instead, he switched his grip and lifted Lyon high and over the head of the man set out at deep point.
It was a far cry from that first boundary, taken off the same bowler, when the day looked longer and the odds were fatter - a four that took him to 7 from 74 balls. Joe Root, the overnight hope, was gone. Jonny Bairstow, in form, then lifted Stokes to allow both to walk into lunch, 34 and 32 respectively, with a digestible 121 with six wickets still to go. Geez, how long ago does that feel?
Even now, the prospect of needing 73 more runs with no wicket to lose is unfathomable. Stokes was only on 61, Leach had a James Pattinson over to see out. The crowd had started contemplating a world beyond what was right in front of them.
Then that switch hit. A ramp for six off Pat Cummins and *that* Hazlewood over where century arrived. A 10th wicket fifty stand brought up in 6.1 overs, all scored by Stokes. Now there was no longer an outside world to worry about. And even outside, they only cared for the events here.
Play was stopped at the Ageas Bowl, Southampton, where Hampshire and Essex were playing a Twenty20 match so that punters and the players could watch the final throes. They always say he empties bars, but perhaps this anecdote should be adopted: Stokes stops other games of cricket, too.
Naturally as England fans, pessimism was just around the corner. You did not have to be long-in-the-tooth to remember the agony of Edgbaston '05, even with its happy ending, or the anguish of Headingley '14 and James Anderson's tears against Sri Lanka.
It was there when a top edge dropped towards the hands of a diving Marcus Harris with 17 left. Its breath on your neck when the ball was thrown to the nonstriker's end with Leach stranded halfway down the pitch. A familiar, terrifying hand on the shoulder when Lyon looked to have trapped Stokes in front - absolutely in front - with just two runs required.
Even Stokes, the one who had done so much already, admitted to nerves when the finish line came into view. When Leach, cleaning his glasses between overs, had to close out overs in this period, Stokes could not bring himself to watch, turning away completely and, on a couple of occasions, simply squatting down and praying.
But just as it was at Lord's, just as it was with every one of these sixes and the many sprinted twos, Stokes knew when the moment was right. When Pat Cummins sent a delivery down at 85mph, which Leach nudged past short leg, a single was called immediately: one that gave Leach his first run from his 15th ball. It also levelled the scores.
With the next ball, the 11th and final four, only Ben Stokes knew the moment the second Test was England's and the Ashes had been squared.
Right off the bat, as he connected with a cut shot so pure to send it through cover, he moved immediately into a roar. Only by the time he punched the air did the cheers kick in, lifting the atmosphere to a level previously unreached and one the joint may never top again.
It felt a fitting finale: Stokes conducting the crowd as he had done the team through a day that will forever bear his name and the numbers 359 and 135*. Proof that the best players know greatness moments before the rest of us.
Now we know, of Headingley 19, and generations will, too.
England's greatest chase. The greatest innings ever played. Ben Stokes, a great with so much more to give. What a ride.
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