Ben Stokes’ last-ditch 135 not out against Australia at Headingley is Wisden’s men’s Test innings of the decade. Ben Gardner remembers what it was like to be there on the day that will define the all-rounder who defines a generation.
Ben Stokes 135* (219 balls, 11 fours, 8 sixes)
England v Australia
Third Ashes Test
August 22-25, 2019
So it’s Ben Stokes then, and a photo finish, as it always seems to be with him, the barest of margins separating him and Kusal Perera in second. Really though the two stand alone, not just in the last 10 years, but in the modern era, even back to the start of it all, the once-in-a-lifetime innings that happened twice in six months.
In some ways, the similarities are uncanny, with the individual scores just a digit switch different and the decisive last-wicket stands, which ended within two runs of each other, displaying many of the same themes – the cultishly heroic No.11 a reminder of times past, and the effortless sixes a stark signal of the modern age.
And yet, if the romance of Kusal’s knock lies in its bolt-from-the-blue impossibility, the beauty of Stokes’ is in how it feels like this was always destined to happen, the logical apex of a career arc that, from the highs of Perth and Cape Town to the lows of Kolkata and Bristol, has seen him emerge as the most unmissable cricketer of his generation.
This summer, the narrative of Stokes the saviour crystallised, as valiant virtuosos went in vain against Sri Lanka and Australia at the World Cup, before he got England so close to the line in the final that they got another chance to haul themselves over it. He seemed a man with sights set solely on redemption, justified in his eyes if no one else’s, with that missed Ashes tour fuel for a summer unparalleled.
Ben Stokes knew he’d won England the Test before everyone else in the ground.
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) August 25, 2019
Stokes is never better than when he feels like he’s let someone down and perhaps the instant this became inevitable wasn’t when Jack Leach nudged that single, or Nathan Lyon fumbled at the stumps, or Tim Paine couldn’t call for that review, but in the first innings, when one of the ugliest dismissals many can remember summed up England’s skittling for 67.
From that point on, Stokes bent the game to his unbending will, and everything he did came with a bloody-minded, dead-eyed clarity, starting with the Sisyphean, virtually unbroken spell of 24.2-7-56-3 that kept Australia within reach, stretching through the 66 balls he blocked out for his first two runs. Even running out Jos Buttler only strengthened Stokes’ resolve, and he gathered himself before exploding into the carnage at the end.
Far beyond any singular show of brilliance, it’s that quality, the pure selflessness, of which another reminder came when the hundred wasn’t even acknowledged, let alone celebrated, that has made him as loved as any English cricketer has been in recent memory. He is the figurehead, conscience, and spokesperson for the sport in this country all at once, and this was Headingley’s day as much as Stokes’.
The Western Terrace has a well-earned reputation as a party stand, but not at the expense of paying attention, and the well-oiled observers lived every ball along with the last pair, never quite losing faith before daring to dream and eventually succumbing to and revelling in the intoxicating unavoidability of the occasion. Even on the last train out of Leeds the sun-sozzled spectators were still singing their improvised chant, ‘Shoes off if you love Ben Stokes’, a full four hours after the final stroke.
But if the occasion belonged to all, the split-second after the game was won was Stokes’ alone. As the gun-crack echoed around a hushed stadium, he raised his arms aloft before anyone else had absorbed what had happened, the only person in the world aware of just quite what he’d done.
118.5, Nathan Lyon to Ben Stokes, six runs
The purists might vouch for the back-foot punch off Pat Cummins, while ‘Cut away for four’ is the commentary quote that will live on, but it’s contrarian to pick out anything other than the reverse-slog-swept six, out of the rough against the best spinner in the world, as the most impossible, intent-signalling stroke of the lot, the point when all of a sudden, anything seemed possible.