Stokes becomes national hero after making most of 2nd chance
Ben Stokes leant back on aching legs and thrust his clenched right fist into the air, letting out a guttural roar as thousands rose as one inside Headingley to acclaim one of English sport's greatest individual performances.
It was an image that adorned the front or back of nearly every British newspaper on Monday, keeping cricket atop the agenda in a summer like no other for a sport often mocked for being quaint and dull but which has suddenly become vibrant and gripping.
Stokes' once-in-a-lifetime innings supposedly came in last month's Cricket World Cup final at Lord's, when his pressure-filled and incident-packed knock of 84 steered England into a rare Super Over eliminator against New Zealand and, ultimately, to becoming world champion for the first time.
Six weeks after what was widely labeled the greatest cricket match ever, and about 170 miles (274 kilometers) north in Leeds, Stokes produced an almost-superhuman innings that was even better, keeping England alive in an Ashes series when all hope appeared to be lost.
On the hottest Bank Holiday weekend ever recorded in England, Stokes showed the steel of a gladiator in his defiance and was spell-bindingly majestic when on the attack.
He summoned every drop of his outrageous skill and flair to score 135 over 5½ hours, masterminding the national team's biggest fourth-innings chase in test cricket in a one-wicket win over fierce rival Australia.
With England still needing 73 runs with one wicket left, Stokes had the clarity to hog the strike in the last-wicket partnership with No. 11 Jack Leach, scoring 74 of a 76-run stand that ended with him slashing a four through the covers to seal victory and spark the image that went everywhere.
"Outrageous," said England captain Joe Root.
"The most extraordinary test innings ever played by an England batsman," purred former England skipper Alastair Cook in his role as the radio commentator.
That is some accolade coming from Cook — England's highest ever test run scorer with 12,472, including 33 centuries — who struck two of his five double hundreds in Australia, both unbeaten, like Stokes was.
Stokes described it as "one of the top two feelings I've ever had on a cricket field," clearly bracketing it with his recent World Cup exploits.
It seemed inevitable that Stokes was the central figure in an English cricketing drama.
After all, it was Stokes who was reduced to tears after being hit for four straight sixes by Carlos Brathwaite in the last over of the Twenty20 World Cup final against West Indies in 2016 as England fell to an improbable loss at Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
That's all forgotten about now.
Born in New Zealand but now an adopted Englishman after moving at the age of 12, Stokes has become a national sporting hero in a summer of redemption for a player whose career was plunged into uncertainty two years ago when he was involved in a street brawl in which he knocked a man unconscious.
According to Stokes, he was acting in self-defense in his reaction to a man who was verbally abusing two gay men outside a club in Bristol, southwest England. Stokes was found not guilty by a court of affray in August last year, yet was handed an eight-match suspension by the England and Wales Cricket Board and fined 30,000 pounds ($38,000) for bringing the game into disrepute. He had already been dropped from England's Ashes squad for the 2017-18 tour Down Under — a series where Australia beat England convincingly.
The late-night fracas solidified his reputation as the bad boy of English cricket, which had grown for various incidents, including arrest and a night in a prison cell in 2011 for obstructing a police officer.
Stokes, now known for his extremely high fitness levels, recently said he had dealt with his off-the-field issues and is just "trying to make better decisions" in his life.
He made plenty of those Sunday under the most extreme pressure possible in the test arena, against England's fiercest rival.
On Saturday evening and into Sunday, he scored 3 runs off his first 73 balls, knowing he had to stay around come what may if England was to pull off a victory. He reached his fifty off 152 balls, his slowest test half-century. Then he accelerated as he lost partners at the other end, hitting 74 off 45 balls — including seven sixes — in that last-wicket stand during which he basically reverted to playing an ODI-style innings.
There was an extraordinary reverse slog sweep for six, a clip off his legs off Josh Hazlewood for six, and even a ramp shot cleared the boundary rope.
In these positions, the burly and confident Stokes can appear invincible.
But it helps having a large dose of luck, too.
In the World Cup final, there was that last-over lunge to avoid a run-out that saw a ball — returning from a throw from the boundary — hitting his outstretched bat and ricocheting for a boundary in overthrows.
At Headingley, Stokes was dropped, he survived an lbw shout because Australia had run out of reviews, and he saw Leach avoid a run-out because of a misfield by Nathan Lyon that might haunt the Australia spinner for some time.
Stokes — calm in the storm around him, even after being smashed in the helmet by a bouncer — barely celebrated reaching his eighth test century, knowing he still had a job to do for the team. Maybe he didn't want to expend energy unnecessarily, having roused himself the previous day to bowl crucial spells to claim figures of 3-56 and limit the damage in Australia's second innings.
The emotions poured out after his match-winning four, though.
England as a whole celebrated, too, won over by a player of uncommon ability desperate to make the most of his second chance.
Stokes simply had no option but to deliver, and did so in astonishing style.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80