First, the science bit. This was England’s highest successful fourth-innings run chase, their highest 10th wicket partnership to win a game (it is just the second-highest in the history of all Test cricket) and the first time any side has won having failed to reach 70 in the first innings in 131 – yes, 131 – years. Oh, and it was also a second century in successive Tests for Stokes in a result that ensures the fight for the Ashes continues into the final two Tests.
The most revealing moment in Stokes’ prestige – the word innings seems a bit insufficient for this bit of magic – was when he reached his century. He did not so much as twitch a smile. There was no raising of the bat or lifting of the arms. Instead he remained absolutely focused on his objective – the team’s objective – which was winning.
“I didn’t really care,” he said later about reaching his century. “Personal milestones, especially in that sort of situation, mean absolutely nothing. There were still a lot more runs to get; I wasn’t bothered about how many I had.”
This provides quite an insight into Stokes’ motivations. And it ties in with the manner in which he took responsibility in the field when England appeared to be falling apart on the third evening. For while his bowling figures in the second innings – 24.2-7-56-3 – look unremarkable, the bald statistics conceal the fact that it was bowled in one remorselessly hostile spell split only by the close on day two and four balls delivered by Jofra Archer before he left the field with an attack of cramp. It was, as his captain put it afterwards, “super human” and it undoubtedly kept his side in the game.
“He’s the ultimate team man,” Root said. “On the third night, when things weren’t going for us and we got sloppy, he stood up. Jofra went off with cramp, but you couldn’t get the ball out of Ben’s hand. He wanted to do everything he could to keep us in that match and that’s what you want form your senior players. He bowled pretty much 20 overs on the bounce with a night in between. That’s an incredible achievement in itself.”
Such testimony is worth remembering the next time you hear somebody tell you Stokes can’t be considered a great allrounder as he doesn’t average 40 with the bat or below 30 with the ball. You can’t judge everything with statistics and Stokes is a far from average cricketer. While others may protect their figures, he remains utterly committed to the result. And it is meant to be a team game, after all.
“Whatever the stage of the game, whether it’s with bat or ball, the team that I’m playing for is going to get everything from me,” Stokes said. “That spell was a time to stand up and deliver. I really enjoy being the person that Joe turns to when it isn’t going our way. I don’t want to do the easy things; I want to do the hard yards as well.”
Ben Stokes ramps a six over fine leg Getty Images
But if that lack of celebration was the most revealing moment, it was far from the most staggering. For that moment you can pick between the switch-hit six – it was more of a reverse-slog-sweep, really; Stokes did not swap his grip – off Nathan Lyon, a sweep for six off Josh Hazlewood; yes, Hazlewood, the man who had taken nine wickets and bowled with unrelenting menace, or the ramp off Pat Cummins that went for six more. Each one of them was staggeringly good.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this was one of those belligerent Stokes innings where he simply chanced his arm, though. It was a long time in development. After 73 balls, he had scored just three runs and his 50 occupied 152 balls. That is easily the slowest of his career.
When the acceleration came, however, it was dramatic. By the end, he had struck eight sixes – beating Kevin Pietersen’s old record for England in Ashes cricket – with his second 50 taking just 47 balls. And while one or two – ok, three or four – of those sixes appeared to pass only just over the boundary fielders, you could almost believe that Stokes was toying with his prey like a cat might a mouse. He didn’t give an actual chance until he had 116.
England had no chance when the last wicket-pair came together. Yes, Stokes was set, but there was too much to do, surely, and he had for company a man who is averaging 4.66 in the County Championship this season (an average artificially boosted by three not outs) who had to wipe his spectacles between every delivery. The groundstaff had gathered; the presentation party had assembled; the ICC even tweeted – if only for a moment – their congratulations to Australia on retaining the Ashes.
But so well was Stokes striking the ball by this point that Jack Leach faced only 17 balls in their 62-ball stand. That over from Hazlewood – the one with the swept six – went for 19. As thunderously supported as the two sixes and a four, was the perfectly weighted two that Stokes guided to backward point and the single that followed it ensuring Leach had only one delivery to face. It was enough to see Hazlewood, who had just replaced James Pattinson, out of the attack. For perhaps the first time in the match, Australia looked out of options.
And, under pressure, it was Australia who blinked. Marcus Harris dropped a tough chance off Stokes – a sliced edge – running in at third man when England still required 17 and then Lyon, inexplicably, fumbled and failed when he had a simple run-out chance (Leach having over enthusiastically backed up) with just two required.
“I think Jack must have been watching Monty Panesar at Cardiff,” Stokes said with his face behind his hands as he recalled the moment. “I could not believe when I looked up and saw him so close to me. He said he thought I was coming down, but I said mate, ‘I was nowhere near running’. That was huge panic stations because he was so far out.”
Stokes was sympathetic to Lyon, though. “Pressure situations can really affect what a human does,” he said. “Nine times out of ten Lyon would pick that ball up and take the stumps off. But you have to take into account the pressure he is under.”
Such moments don’t seem to bother Stokes, though. Quite the opposite, really. He has done it in a World Cup final and a key Ashes Test now. Like the best before him – Shane Warne, MS Dhoni, Viv Richards – he appears to blossom in the heat of competition just as others wilt.
England have a gem in Stokes and his brilliance has kept them in this Ashes series.