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Ben Stokes at Headingley: England’s greatest-ever Test innings?

Stokes, Headingley
Lawrence Booth by Lawrence Booth
@the_topspin 3 minute read

Lawrence Booth reflected on Ben Stokes’ Headingley masterclass in his editor’s notes for the 2020 Wisden Almanack.

In any sane year, events on the fourth and final day of the third Ashes Test at Headingley would have had pride of place. But Stokes’s unbeaten 135, Jack Leach’s unbeaten one, and England’s one-wicket win, were – by the barest of margins – only the second-most astonishing twist of 2019. It was like awarding a silver medal to Steve Redgrave.

Cricket loves to classify, and debate raged: where in the pantheon did Stokes’s innings belong? It was arbitrary to proclaim it the greatest of all time: months earlier at Durban, Sri Lanka’s Kusal Perera had scored 153 not out after a last-wicket stand of 78 (Stokes and Leach added 76). That said, if casual observers had overlooked Perera, they could hardly be blamed: the series was watched by one man and his Rhodesian ridgeback.

But England’s greatest Test innings? Stokes certainly had all the ingredients. Unlike Graham Gooch’s 154 not out against West Indies at Headingley in 1991, the series was at stake. Unlike Mike Atherton’s Johannesburg vigil in 1995/96, it led to a win. Unlike Ian Botham’s own Headingley heist, it was sudden death. Unlike Kevin Pietersen’s 186 at Mumbai in 2012/13, it was talked about next day up and down the land. Unlike Gilbert Jessop’s 104 at The Oval in 1902, it survives beyond a few written words.

Stokes’s innings was a modern hybrid: Test tempo as he saw out the third day; something approaching one-day mode, in partnership with Bairstow; finally, pure Twenty20. Two days earlier, after England had folded for 67, their relationship with white-ball cricket was branded toxic. Now, it was agreed their win might never have happened without the limited-overs game.

Of England Test innings that have been reported on widely enough to merit inclusion here, arguably only two can challenge Stokes: Pietersen’s 158 at The Oval on the last afternoon of the 2005 Ashes, and – a few weeks after Headingley – Botham’s 118 off 102 balls at Old Trafford, where he hooked Dennis Lillee without a helmet. The argument may one day be settled by another innings, and Stokes will doubtless play it.

Tight versus might – Australia’s cliffhanger plight

Headingley was the latest example of a strange phenomenon. In Tests between the sides decided by one or two wickets, or by fewer than 20 runs, England lead Australia 13–5. Australia last clinched an Ashes nail-biter nearly a century ago, recovering from 119 for six to 489 at Adelaide in January 1925, and winning by 11 runs. Maybe they have grown used to having things their own way, and regard close finishes as a threat. Maybe England have learned to believe nothing is impossible. Attitudes can become self-fulfilling.

But is there something else at play? In Australia, cricket is the national sport, a means of self-affirmation. Remorselessness is prized – Steve Smith last summer, Marnus Labuschagne over the winter. It’s about being the best, again and again (overall, Australia lead England 146–110). In England, cricket has to shout for attention: the Test team’s hard-fought rise up the rankings in 2011 was never going to make as many headlines as the rousing one-off. Perhaps both countries are simply giving their people what they want.

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