By Peter Hall
LEEDS, England (Reuters) – Ben Stokes hailed his incredible 135 not out to win the third test and level the series as “special” after single-handedly saving the Ashes for England with an innings that had everything.
Australia looked certain to take a 2-0 lead in the five-match series — enough, as holders, to retain the Ashes — with England, chasing 359 to win, down and almost out on 286-9.
However, an incredible display from Stokes, in an innings that included eight sixes, saw England snatch victory amid euphoric scenes at Headingley, levelling the series at 1-1 after their highest-ever successful run chase in any test.
“Walking off there at the end when the whole of Headingley was standing up and celebrating was a very special moment and something I had to try to take in because moments like that don’t come along very often,” Stokes said.
“We knew if we lost this game then the Ashes were gone. Especially after getting bowled out for 67 in our first innings, to still be in with a chance of getting the urn back is an amazing feeling.”
What set Stokes’ innings apart was not just how he handled the responsibility as England’s only hope of salvaging the series, but just how he built his innings over two days.
With England facing defeat inside three days, Stokes, alongside captain Joe Root, suppressed his attacking instincts, blocking shot after shot to see England through to the close on Saturday with just three wickets down.
Pursuing the second-highest successful Headingley test run chase on Sunday, England were still up against it and with wickets falling around him, Stokes knew he had to step up and change his tactics. He did just that, to devastating effect.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen anything better than that on a Test ground, to be honest,” former Australia captain Ricky Ponting said.
“He (Stokes) scored two off 64 balls but we always felt that if he was there then England were going to be in with a chance to win.”
His heroics completed an amazing turnaround in the career of Stokes, an all-rounder whose brilliance has gone hand-in-hand with high drama on and off the cricket field.
He was hit for four successive sixes by West Indian Carlos Brathwaite in the last over of the World Twenty20 final in 2016, the onslaught ending England’s hopes of a second title.
Two years ago, Stokes was involved in a fracas outside a Bristol nightclub, which resulted in him missing the last Ashes tour in Australia. He admitted bringing the game into disrepute and received a £30,000 pounds fine from the ECB.
His comeback after a difficult period, though, was striking and seemed to have culminated with his match-winning heroics in the final as he propelled England to their first World Cup title at Lord’s last month.
It turned out only to be the hors d’oeuvre, though.
Stokes, who also bowled an exhausting sequence of excellent overs when England really needed him on days two and three, evoked memories of Ian Botham, whose own famous unbeaten century on the same ground in 1981 sparked an equally unlikely home test triumph.
“I’ve seen some remarkable cricket moments in my life but that is the best I’ve seen in over 50 years,” former England batsman Geoffrey Boycott, who played in that 1981 classic, said.
“Ben Stokes saved the Ashes and gave a magical inspirational innings. Even better than his World Cup performance.”
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Ian Chadband)