LONDON (Reuters) – England hailed a new Ashes hero for the ages on Monday after Ben Stokes dragged his country from the point of defeat to a narrow victory over Australia with an innings that almost defied belief.
All the English newspapers carried a picture of the all-rounder celebrating his winning runs at a sun-bathed Headingley on their front pages, with The Sun splashing “Go Urn My Son!” and the Daily Telegraph “Howzat!”.
Ian Botham’s unbeaten 149 at the same ground 38 years ago has long stood as the gold standard of an English Ashes performance but there were plenty of suggestions that it had been eclipsed.
Former test opener turned pundit Geoffrey Boycott, never one to readily suggest the game was better now than it was in his heyday, certainly thought so and described Sunday as the best cricketing moment he had witnessed in half a century.
Botham himself described Stokes as “The Special One” and Michael Atherton, another former England captain, said the unbeaten 135 was “one of the greatest test innings”.
“It was a combination of all sorts of things, craft, skill, versatility and most of all, an ‘over my dead body’ attitude without which you are not a great player,” he added.
Lawrence Booth, the Wisden editor, ranked it in the top five innings in the 137-year history of the Ashes, while former Guardian cricket correspondent and test cricketer Mike Selvey admitted it had reduced him to tears.
Some in the media were not happy restricting themselves to cricket, with Leo McKinstry in The Daily Mail saying the victory highlighted “timeless British virtues, such as stoicism in the face of daunting odds”.
“Britain’s rich sporting heritage has produced many uplifting moments, from the World Cup triumph of 1966 to the glut of gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics,” he wrote.
“But ranking with them, surely, is the England cricket team’s heart-stopping victory at Leeds yesterday in the third test against Australia by a single wicket, the narrowest of margins.”
Matt Dickinson in The Times compared Stokes’s ability to produce his best just when the situation demanded it to Argentine footballing great Diego Maradona and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
“Of more than seven billion people, it felt as if only one ginger-haired left-hander from Cockermouth could muster all the truly extraordinary mental and physical abilities, not only to save a test match, and an Ashes series, but to make us wonder if, among us, there are very rare folk who have a superpower.”
Stokes’s performance was all the more notable for coming only 44 days after his Man of the Match display helped England win the 50-overs World Cup for the first time in another extraordinary contest.
Botham is now Sir Ian Botham of course and there were no shortage of suggestions on social media that Stokes, who arrived in England from New Zealand as a 12-year-old, should be similarly decorated.
The punches he threw outside a Bristol nightclub two years ago that resulted in him missing England’s last Ashes tour might delay that honour, however, even if he was eventually acquitted of affray.
Despite Sunday’s fireworks, Joe Root’s team still have plenty to do in the final two Ashes tests with the series tied at 1-1. Australia only need to draw the series to retain the urn.
For Stokes, though, a spot in the pantheon of great English cricketers appears to be already assured on the back of his heroics over one long, hot summer.
(Writing by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, editing by Peter Rutherford)