#4 Stokes’ brilliance lights up Headingly (2019)
People often ask me why I love sport so much. The simple answer I usually offer is that it is a microcosm of life itself. It can make you feel joy, excitement, shock, awe, envy, stress and despair, all of life’s most powerful emotions. But unlike life, which has a tendency to magnetize the importance of such emotions, sport breaks them down into more manageable, bitesize chunks. The break-up of a relationship, for example, can often mean weeks and months of depression with no light at the end of the tunnel. During a football match, however, your heart can be broken, repaired, and smashed to pieces again all within the space of a couple of hours. But because its “just a game,” you usually get over it within a few hours, a day or two at most. Sport teaches you how to accept disappointment and treasure success.
Wow, where did that come from? Really didn’t expect to get so deep there. Anyway, lets lighten the tone by continuing this countdown with the first contribution from the magical world of cricket, that most bizarre, complex and yet enthralling sport.
Living in Mexico, I have tried, and failed, many times to explain how cricket works over the past few years. I start with the simple stuff. “It’s kind of like baseball,” I say. “Except the pitcher is called a bowler and they don’t rely massive mits to catch a ball.” So far so good.
“Oh,” I add. “And matches last five days.”
With that, I’ve lost them. The concept of a five-day match is just too absurd to comprehend. Most people just laugh and change the subject.
I don’t blame them. Cricket is completely insane. There are terms, like “silly point” and “leg before wicket” and “pitched outside off-stump,” that are utterly bewildering to the uninformed observer. There are breaks for drinks, lunch and tea. There can be passages of several minutes when the batsman intentionally fails to hit the ball, creating a situation in which the “competition” is essentially two people on the same team throwing the ball back-and-forth. And despite being invented in one of the wettest countries in the world, you can’t play in the rain. If I hadn’t spent my childhood summers watching and playing cricket, I would steer well clear.
But if you happen to be one of the few who understands the method to the madness, its entirely addictive. And what Ben Stokes did at Headingly this summer perfectly demonstrates how cricket, and indeed sport in general, can take you through a whirlwind of emotions with drama to match any Hollywood epic.
This story had everything. Going into the final day of the test, England needed a mammoth 359 runs to beat Australia and keep the Ashes series alive for another game. They had never chased such a high total before, and considering the bowling might of the Aussies – they had made only 67 in the first innings – it would take something, or someone, miraculous.
Cue Stokes. When the New Zealand-born all-rounder came to the crease at 141-3, the task was still just about possible, although highly unlikely. He made a steady start, scoring just 3 runs off his first 73 balls. But one-by-one is partners came and went, and when last man Jack Leach walked out to bat at 286-9 – still 73 runs shy of the target – the game was over. It was simply a matter of time before defeat was confirmed.
Stokes then decided to take matters into his own hands. Aided by what can only be described as divine intervention, he started flashing his tattoo-covered arms all over the place in a desperate attempt to reach the target. He scored 135 not out, including eight sixes and 11 fours, as England incredibly won by one wicket. Leach, aside from one dramatic single to level the scores, was largely a bystander. He played his part, but this was all about Stokes. He changed the outcome of a five-day match between 22 players all on his own in about an hour.
There is so much more to this story that I don’t have the space for in a single post. The altercation at a Bristol nightclub in 2017 that left Stokes banned for the previous Ashes series in Australia and facing a possible prison sentence (he was later cleared of all wrongdoing). His efforts with the ball during Australia’s second innings, during which he bowled the longest spell by a pace bowler in international cricket since 2006 (24.2 overs). The glaring run-out opportunity missed by Nathan Lyon when Australia still led by two runs, and subsequent failed lbw appeal that should have been given out. The parallels with fellow all-rounder Sir Ian Botham, who achieved similarly miraculous feats at the same ground, against the same opposition, in 1981. If you want some goosebumps, just take a look at this.
And of course, there is the side-note that Stokes, just a few weeks previously, had won his country’s first Cricket World Cup in quite literally the most dramatic fashion possible in front of a delirious home crowd. Both achievements should, realistically, be included in this countdown. But in the interest of variety I decided to go for his Ashes innings only, because despite the fact the the trophy would fit into the palm of my hand, everyone knows that cricket’s Ashes are bigger than the World Cup.