Forget Botham and Willis, Headingley has a new Ashes 2019 hero in Ben Stokes
Move over Ian Botham, Bob Willis and 1981… Headingley has a new miracle.
And the miracle worker was England’s Ben Stokes, who produced one of the greatest innings that cricket has seen.
If you thought that the World Cup final was tense enough, when Stokes delivered a man-of-the-match performance to help England lift the trophy, what happened in Leeds yesterday made that occasion at Lord’s seem prosaic by comparison.
Amid tension more incredible even than the 2005 Ashes, when English Test fans thought that they had seen it all, Stokes scored 135 not out to lead England to a one-wicket win and the highest run-chase in their Test history.
In the process, he kept the Ashes alive as England levelled the series at 1-1 with two Tests to go, when defeat would have seen Australia retain the urn.
You would have to be brave or crazy to bet against England now, particularly with this apparently super-human figure in their side.
When Stuart Broad was lbw to a yorker from James Pattinson that left England 286-9, still 73 short of their towering target, the odds on an England victory seemed longer than the 500-1 of Headingley ‘81.
Jack Leach is no mug at No 11, but only a mug would have rushed to put money on an England win, so unlikely did it seem that they would beat their previous highest chase of 332-7 against Australia at Melbourne in 1929 when, in a neat coincidence, the Yorkshire opening batsman Herbert Sutcliffe also top-scored with 135.
What happened thereafter was a blur of boundaries, a dropped catch, a missed run-out and mayhem, an unbelievable sequence of events that left an 18,000 capacity crowd - and the many thousands watching and listening elsewhere - in a state of open-mouthed shock and suspense.
Even those present will forever struggle to believe what they witnessed; not even Hans Christian Andersen would have dared to submit such a far-fetched script to his publisher.
Stokes, who has experienced many ups and downs in his extraordinary life, is a figure fit for the most fanciful story, a hero plucked from the pages of fiction.
Afterwards, Joe Root, his captain, who had walked out to embrace him in the centre of the pitch after Stokes cut the winning boundary off Pat Cummins, described him as “a freak”, which is as good a description as any.
When Leach came to the crease on a baking hot afternoon, the mood sombre and subdued in the sweltering stands, Stokes had 61 to his name having hitherto played a mainly cautious hand.
He had gone into the fourth day with just two runs to his name from 50 balls, with England 156-3 in pursuit of their 359 target. It took him 83 deliveries to reach double figures.
But after Root was out in the day’s sixth over, caught by a diving David Warner at slip after inside-edging a ball from Nathan Lyon into his pad, Stokes seemed sparked into life by the appearance of Jonny Bairstow.
The Yorkshireman thrives on a challenge and he soon had the crowd on their feet with successive offside boundaries off Josh Hazlewood to the foot of the West Stand.
Later, another off-driven boundary by Bairstow off Hazlewood drew cries of “Yawkshire, Yawkshire” from the partisan crowd.
The cheers were louder still when Pattinson delivered five wides that burst through an unsuspecting Warner’s hands at first slip to the third man boundary, raising the 50 stand between Stokes and Bairstow from just 58 balls.
For so long the tortoise, Stokes was now the hare. Having been hit on the helmet early in the day while trying to pull Hazlewood, with pieces of the helmet flying here and there, Stokes suddenly cut James Pattinson for four and pulled Pat Cummins for a commanding six.
At lunch, England had reached 238-4 and Australia’s body language betrayed their concern. Just 121 more runs needed with six wickets left.
But lunch came at the wrong time for England, who lost Bairstow soon after to a catch at second slip as he flashed at a short and wide delivery from Hazlewood.
When Stokes then pushed Lyon to mid-wicket and called for a run, only to send back Jos Buttler who was run-out by Travis Head’s direct hit, closely followed by Chris Woakes driving loosely to cover, England were 261-7 and the matter seemed settled.
Jofra Archer slog-swept Lyon to deep square-leg, where Head flipped the ball back on the boundary before completing the catch, before Broad departed to Pattinson’s yorker.
The only person who thought that England could win now was surely Stokes, who, with only Leach then for company, lofted Lyon for six over long-on and then for another maximum via an outrageous reverse-sweep into the West Stand.
More sixes followed as Cummins was ramped and Hazlewood twice deposited over square-leg.
Then, with just 17 needed and Stokes on 116, the left-hander was dropped by Marcus Harris running in from short third-man off Cummins - Australia’s Simon Jones moment: Edgbaston 2005.
Lyon was hit for another six and then crucially failed to gather Cummins’s throw when Stokes reverse-swept to short third-man, with Leach stranded after running up the pitch before being sent back.
Stokes would then have been lbw to Lyon but, wouldn’t you know it, Australia had recently wasted their last review.
Then, just when no one could take any more, Stokes flayed Cummins through the covers and the game was won.
The man who had near single-handedly won it threw his arms aloft and sank to his knees.
And so was born the legend of Headingley 2019.