England v Australia - 3rd Specsavers Ashes Test: Day Four
England v Australia - 3rd Specsavers Ashes Test: Day Four

How ‘the best Test innings ever played’ unfolded

Jack Leach stood at the non-striker's end polishing steam off his glasses.

The tailender had the best seat in the Headingley house for what Michael Vaughan declared 'the best Test innings ever played', and even he was struggling to see what was unfolding before him.

Who could blame him? At the other end stood Ben Stokes, tattooed biceps bulging through his Test shirt, delivering a raucous Leeds crowd catching practice, much to the misery of Australia's world-class attack.

 

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Stokes cut Patrick Cummins to the rope to seal England's greatest ever Test victory, rolling his follow through into a mighty fist pump as Leach charged over to embrace him.

 

Jack Leach rushes to celebrate with Ben Stokes after the all-rounder struck the winning runs.
Jack Leach rushes to celebrate with Ben Stokes after the all-rounder struck the winning runs.

 

Stokes finished unbeaten on 135 (219), but that doesn't tell half of the story.

When the bespectacled Leach joined Stokes at the crease England was 9/286, still 73 runs short of keeping the Ashes series alive.

England, skittled for an embarrassing 67 just two days earlier, had never previously chased more than 330 in a fourth innings.

In fact, no team had been skittled for less than 70 and gone on to win a Test match since 1888.

But Stokes, 28, was about to tear up the history books. He did it in vastly different gears, scoring three runs from his first 73 balls and then 74 from his last 42, when Leach was at the crease.

 

Stokes knock was one of brutal elegance, and drenched in cricketing intelligence and game awareness.
Stokes knock was one of brutal elegance, and drenched in cricketing intelligence and game awareness.

 

He couldn't bear to watch when Leach faced 17 balls, remaining unbeaten on one run.

"Those will be the most important balls Jack Leach has ever faced, or will ever face in his Test career," Stokes said.

Nobody could bear to look away when Stokes was on stage.

If Stokes wasn't wearing whites you would've believed this was a T20 game. It was white-ball batting masquerading as a Test innings.

Stokes blasted 17 runs off a Josh Hazlewood over and 13 off a Nathan Lyon over, both bowlers conceding a pair of sixes.

The unlikely target zoomed into a likely target in a matter of minutes.

In total, Stokes crunched eight sixes when no other player cleared the Headingley ropes.

There were switch-hits and scoops, slog-sweeps and powerful off-drives. A mis-hit would've meant game over, and series over, but Stokes just kept on flushing them.

"I got my pitching wedge distance quite good on a few occasions, especially that last (six) which just managed to go over (Marnus Labuschagne's) head," Stokes said.

There was no celebration for Stokes' 50, and no celebration for his 100. Why would there be?

"I looked at the bigger picture," Stokes said.

 

Stokes faced or bowled 365 deliveries from the start of Australia’s second innings.
Stokes faced or bowled 365 deliveries from the start of Australia’s second innings.

 

"There was still a lot of runs to get. Personal milestones, especially in that situation, mean absolutely nothing."

It was only when England roared within 10 runs of its greatest ever Test victory that Stokes felt the nerves.

 

The most clear cut man-of-the-match award in Test history.
The most clear cut man-of-the-match award in Test history.

 

Would he keep going the tonk? Or play it safe? Stokes wanted to finish it against the quicks, and tipped his hat to Tim Paine's captaincy, as he reintroduced Nathan Lyon.

"Everybody was out on the boundary, it was a pitch that was very helpful for spin bowling and I was trying to attack the first half of the over, every over, when Jack came in.

"It was a good ploy from him," Stokes said.

"I wasn't quite sure whether to keep on going like I was, or to try to win it in ones and twos. But I got us to that point from playing in a certain way so I just kept on going."

No cricket crowd has engaged in a game quite like this. Every block from Leach was met with the same standing ovation as the powerful blasts from Stokes.

It was quite literally the knock that stopped the nation, with cricket matches at Taunton and Southampton stalled so they could witness Stokes' moment of greatness.

Captain Joe Root said Stokes' knock would "change people's perceptions of Test cricket".

It was too much for teammate Jos Buttler, who covered his face with his shirt, and then told Stuart Broad to quieten down when the big bowler started screaming his support of every Stokes slog.

It was also markedly similar to six weeks ago, the day Stokes broke New Zealand hearts with a World Cup final innings that prompted captain Eoin Morgan to label the brutal all-rounder "superhuman".

Root simply said Stokes was a "freak". More aptly, this bloke boasts a brazen blend of jaw-dropping ability and mental fortitude.

At both the World Cup final and the Ashes epic Stokes was the last man standing, and he refused to sit down, dragging his tailenders along for the journey of their lives.

It was also a year and 11 days since Stokes was cleared of affray over that Bristol nightclub scuffle, but it is obvious now Stokes' on-field heroics will consign such incidents to a footnote.

To truly appreciate Stokes' knock you have to rewind to Friday evening, when Test baby Jofra Archer hobbled from the field with cramp.

Root turned to Stokes to finish his over, and bowl about 20 consecutive overs of searing pace in hot conditions.

 

Fans in the Western Terrace raised their shoes in salute of their cricketing hero.
Fans in the Western Terrace raised their shoes in salute of their cricketing hero.

 

"That spell where I had to bowl at the end when Jofra went off with cramp was a time to stand up and deliver," Stokes said, giving an insight into his attitude.

"I really enjoy being the person that Joe turns to in situations when it isn't going our way.

"To sit here, especially after getting bowled out for 67, and still be in with a chance of getting the urn back is an amazing feeling."

In fact, since the start of Australia's second innings, Stokes either bowled or faced 365 deliveries.

Was there a magic potion for Stokes to guzzle after stumps to stay fresh? No, in fact, on Friday night his wife, Clare, walked in on Stokes gorging on a bowl of pasta wearing nothing but boxer shorts.

On Saturday night Stokes tucked into some "knockoff Nandos" and two bars of Yorkie Raisin and Biscuit, and before his herculean innings he tipped in two cups of coffee.

 

Declining to celebrate his personal milestones, Stokes acknowledge the crowd once the job was done.
Declining to celebrate his personal milestones, Stokes acknowledge the crowd once the job was done.

 

When the energy levels ran low out in the middle, all Stokes had to do was open his ears and he would feed off the rocking crowd.

"Being tired at the end, the noise and the atmosphere gives you an extra level of adrenaline," he said.

That's why, after Stokes' famous fist pump, he took off his helmet and dropped to his knees in exhaustion.

Down the road the Foo Fighters were listed as the top billing at Leeds Festival.

But it was Stokes that was truly headlining this long weekend, and he put on a show that even the Aussies were forced to applaud.

 

 

Root said there was a midnight curfew, but the after party began at stumps, and at 8.15pm players walked to the base of the pitch and sat in a circle for 30 minutes, sipping on beers and swooning over Stokes.

As Stokes approached his half-century, the crowd begun waving their footwear in the air and chanting, "Shoes off if you love Ben Stokes".

If they knew what was about to follow they might've taken off a lot more clothes.

And so it was fitting that, when Stokes fronted the press, he walked into the room shoeless, sporting white socks in urgent need of a wash on his feet.

Is there anything Stokes can't do?

"His handwriting is terrible, and his language isn't great either," Root said.

News Corp Australia


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