Ben Stokes’ heroics in securing England it’s maiden World Cup title solidified belief that whenever chips were down, it could always count on Big Ben Stokes Big Time, Big Stage.
Barring legendary Sir Donald Bradman, in Ashes action, more often than not, it is the English allrounders that have always made a decisive difference in deciding the outcomes. Recall how Big Beefy Botham beating betting odds of 500-1, battered Aussies with batting score of 151*(coincidentally at Headingley in 1981); or flamboyant Flintoff famously finished Aussies in the Ashes (Edgbaston in 2005). Firing all cylinders, Ben Stokes’ batting and bowling prowess (bowled 25 overs at a stretch in second innings) annihilated Australia’s ambition, to retain Ashes, into dust and some tears. Stokes workman’s like work ethic brings back memories of another outstanding all-rounder- Jacques Kallis.
After Britain’s iconic Big Ben rung celebratory bells just last month after winning the World Cup, seems Ben Stokes wants Big Ben to continue ringing, recording his mounting milestones. May be Ben Stokes wants ringing bells to send loud and clear reminder to royalty to knight him as the Brit of the year. And pay no heed to a demand to declare Stokes as New Zealander of the year; it mockingly seeks a vengeful retribution for England wrongfully winning the World Cup solely by his (mis) deeds, causing lifelong woes for New Zealand. Undoubtedly, Stokes surely needs to be anointed, not only as a knight in the shining armour for his heroics but for the fact that heavenly halo is already hovering his head. By this singular performance at Headingley, he has already done advance booking for a place in hallowed Hall of Fame of World Cricket. In a way, knowing his own potential for heroics, Ben Stokes has already done with his body decoration; now only ceremonial decoration at the Royal Court remains. This year, surely the wise men of Wisden would also add additional halo by heaping praise.
Third Test a Headingley indeed showed a rare record of containing contrasting extremes in a single Test match: English team touted as best batting team unexpectedly collapsed in a heap for a paltry 67 in the first innings in 21st century (4th lowest in 131 years -other three in 1880s); and then returning from the dead it recorded the world’s 10th highest fourth innings chase to snatch an unimaginable victory. If England’s collapse compared to ignominious performance over a century, its successful run chase also surpassed their best in nearly a century too (in 1928 England chased 332 against Australia in Melbourne).
And if this wasn’t enough, England also won with the closest margin possible of one wicket, from the tightened jaws of defeat. Come to think of it, England almost lost the match by one run before winning instead by one wicket. And one that stood tall as one and only one was Stokes. So, the Test has an epitaph of ‘One and the Only One written all over it –both for the Test as well as for the individual. Or in words of Jose Mourinho, Stokes can be anointed as the Special One.
Stokes innings would be remembered for showing superlative performance in skill, will and nerves of steel. Stokes’s innings also exemplified contrasting extremes: typically showing Test cricket temperament, he built his innings brick by brick as evident in scoring just 2 runs in 66 balls (reminding of Sunny Gavaskar Test like innings in first World Cup in 1975 when he made from 36 from 174 balls) and clocked as the slowest to reach the double figures in 25 years. His sedate, slow and dour innings shifted gears when he felt there was nothing to lose and one had to go out or down, if that turned out to be so, with all guns blazing. This is evident in that Stokes was on 61 when last batsman Jack Leach came to the crease. In his 135*, Stokes hit eight sixes as if regressing to one-day format of unleashing a brutal assault in final overs. The drama was reserved for last two overs only.
In recent World Cup, it wasn’t Ben Stokes batting that baffled but Stokes’ stroke of luck that bowled all: firstly, his otherwise prolific bat scored a crucial four not from a ball bowled, but from a ball thrown at a wicket for running him out; other was the blatant wrongful decision by umpire Dhramasena that erroneously allowed him to retain the strike to score a tie ; even at Headingley, he would’ve been out but for the Aussies running out of luck and DRS ; while scoring 75 and heaving sixes all over the park, not one ball reached players straddling the boundary line; and his audacious reverse sweep shots and cuts missed players in catching positions.
In contrast to Stokes’s luck, Aussies ran out of even a teeny-weeny luck when Nathan Lyon missed a soft ball bouncing before him to take bails off to run out Leach. And then they ran out of DRS (having wasted on LBW appeal against Leach in previous over) that would have surely felled Stokes after he fell while swat sweeping. These two took the wind out of sails of the Aussies ship touching shore of success. The events on fourth day would have turned all Ladbrokes betting odds on their head. Stokes, stadium crowds and screen audience had their hearts in mouth when Leach almost did a déjà vu of that infamous Allan Donald run out that caused heartbreak loss of final spot to South Africa in the World Cup in 1999.Like Donald, Leach committed the cardinal mistake of not looking at the ball but on the partner. Donald was dubbed as Donald Duck for that; guess Jack would’ve had the ignominy of being known as the jackass all his life but luckily that wouldn’t happen now.
It is almost like the Test cricket purists were waiting for simultaneous launching of World Test Cricket Championship (on August 2019) to give final proof of glorious uncertainties of cricket, not once but many times over. Look at Ashes first: in all three Tests, the fortunes fluctuated all playing days (despite rain interruptions) and wickets fell frequently till final hours swinging fortunes both sides (except in second Test). As if in parallel, famed Indian battling line up tottered in first innings of Test match between India West Indies at Antigua, only to recover; it returned the favour by claiming nine West Indies wickets for fifty in fourth innings, till Kemar Roach added fifty runs for the last wicket, reiterating not to write of last wicket batting pretenders. Simultaneously, Sri Lanka- New Zealand two Test series was similarly turning out to be thriller in a distant third island (British Isles and West Indies).
Sunil Gavaskar often says the Aussies can be bad losers Ian Chappel’s comment that Paine lost his head is indeed painful, coming from a serious analyst of the game known for unpredictable results. Would he say that Aussies won the semifinal against South Africa in World Cup by their deeds alone in 1999? All armchair analysts comment with benefit of having hindsight vision of 2020.
The outstanding performance of Stokes was so striking that Leach was seen repeatedly taking off and wiping of his glasses, as if to assure himself that what he was witnessing was indeed happening in front of his unbelievable eyes. Being bespectacled, he couldn’t have rubbed his eyes in disbelief, so was taking off glasses to wipe and also check whether their power had fallen in inverse proportion to increased hitting of Stokes? Maybe the heat in the middle generated enough steam, necessitating repeated mopping of his fogged lenses.
2019 has been a landmark year for rewriting last wicket records: first was 78 runs between Kusal Pereira and Vishwa Fernando in Sri Lanka vs South Africa and second of 76 runs between Stokes and Leach; of total of 14 one wicket wins occurring in 2358 Tests (since 1877), 2 happened this year (SA Vs SL & England vs Australia). These performances show that nowadays in Test cricket tail can wag and lower order doesn’t run away with tails tucked in like they used to, specially sub continental teams. Recall Indian batting in the seventies when Indian batting folded when Sunny’s batting wasn’t shining.
Roots will eternally reminisce about the golden hour that won the Headingly Test for England. Roots has much to be grateful to Stokes for preventing his captaincy from being uprooted; knives were almost out and draft epitaphs ending his captaincy were under preparation.
Ben Stokes loves being decorated big time; just look at ample colorful tattoos adorning his arms and would love being decorated with a knighthood on a big royal night at the Buckingham Palace. His resounding performances have sounded Big Ben bells loud and clear and that too within in earshot of Royal Buckingham Place exhorting Her Majesty to not wait any longer.
In some ways, for some years at least, the British would love the return of joys of cricket of the yore as cacophony of continental cricket crowd was virtually absent.
Test format truly testifies to the ultimate test of an individual and a team. Though essentially a team sport, its individual performances which separate a champion team (Bradman, Botham, Warne, Viv Richards, Tendulkar, Gavaskar, Lara et al). Just see how in other team sports like the American Football (Tom Brady), Football (Pele, Maradona, Messi, Ronaldo), Basketball (Jordan, Lebron James, Shaquille O’Neal), Rugby (Jonah Lomu), its individuals who take teams to stratospheric heights. In other words, one can say that in cricket, the total sum of parts can be greater in most times- like seen in the times of West Indies or Aussie’s domination under Clive Lloyd or Steve Waugh/ Ponting respectively. One must see the documentary titled Fire In Babylon to see how West Indies Team of seventies and eighties invincibly dominated the Test Cricket of the world. There are other times when an individual player acts at the strongest link in weak chain and acts as bulwark preventing its break up – like Sachin Tendulkar, Gavaskar, Lara did. At times players like Botham, Flintoff and Stokes make the crucial difference when chain is almost cracking to break asunder. Stokes stood rock like protecting the weakest link of Leach and turned the tale around for an improbable win.
The last hour showed that Aussies collectively couldn’t hold their thinking heads together for securing a heady win that would have allowed them to retain the Ashes. They wouldn’t forget the heart burn about the urn and the ashes for a long time if they fail to take back the Ashes. If that happens, captaincy would be taken back from Paine for sure and Paine would be pained forever.
Two Test Matches remain in the Ashes. What a summer it would be for England to win the World Cup and the Ashes. And Roots captaincy could take strong roots. And Stokes would be called as the Superman-a term western mind loves.
(The author is an avid fan of films and sports. As a professional, he belongs to Indian Administrative Service and presently serving as Additional Secretary with the Government of India.)