A triumph which symbolises timeless English virtues such as stoicism against daunting odds: LEO MCKINSTRY on the day Ben Stokes channelled Ian Botham to lead England to Ashes glory
Britain’s rich sporting heritage has produced many uplifting moments, from the World Cup triumph of 1966 to the glut of gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics.
But ranking with them, surely, is the England cricket team’s heart-stopping victory at Leeds yesterday in the Third Test against Australia by a single wicket, the narrowest of margins.
In scenes of high drama, excruciating tension and glorious relief, England’s last two batsmen — the heroic Ben Stokes and his unflappable partner Jack Leach — somehow dragged England to the winning target with a defiant refusal to accept the odds against them.
It was the sheer remarkable scale of the comeback that made this achievement so special. Twice in the match, England seemed dead and buried.
Victory: Ben Stokes roars in celebration after hitting the winning runs at Leeds, leading England to an extraordinary comeback victory over Australia to level the Ashes series at 1-1
Indeed, the Ashes — the trophy for which England and Australia have competed since 1882 in one of sport’s greatest rivalries — seemed certain to be on their way back to the Antipodes before yesterday’s last-ditch stand, thanks to the erratic performance of captain Joe Root’s team.
In their first innings, England had been bowled out for just 67 and their cause looked hopeless. There seemed little chance to make the required runs, especially not against the fearsome Aussie attack, renowned for its pace and accuracy.
Yet Stokes, resembling a medieval warrior in his spirit and red-bearded appearance, kept on fighting. His magnificent century — described by former England captain Sir Alastair Cook as ‘the greatest innings by an Englishman in Test history’ — was almost like an act of iron willpower, forcing the Australians into submission.
The incredible scenes reminded me and others of the great Sir Ian Botham’s efforts at Headingley in 1981, a comparison to which I shall return.
It must be said that Stokes’s tough temperament has landed him in trouble in the past, most notably when he was charged with assault outside a nightclub in 2017. Though he was subsequently acquitted, he was charged by the England cricket authorities with ‘bringing the game into disrepute’, was given a heavy fine and banned for several internationals.
However, he has put those dark times behind him. His resolution now serves a far better cause, that of English cricket. With his lion-hearted outlook, his astonishing fitness and natural talent, he has become the linchpin of his team.
He is not just its most reliable batsman in this Ashes series, but he is also a fine bowler, willing to undertake a huge workload.
In yesterday’s victory, he had a stalwart, if unlikely, accomplice in the form of bespectacled tail-end batsman and spin bowler Jack Leach, who added to the incongruity of their historic partnership by regularly polishing his steamed-up glasses between deliveries.
In the mid-1970s, the grey-haired, bespectacled Northamptonshire batsman David Steele was surprisingly brought into the Test team to shore up its middle order against the Australian attack, headed by demons Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
Steele, famously described as ‘the bank clerk who went to war’, performed brilliantly and went on to win the award as the 1975 BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Throwback: The incredible scenes at Headingley yesterday reminded many of the great Sir Ian Botham’s efforts at the same ground in the 1981 Ashes (he is pictured batting in that match)
Leach certainly deserves some kind of award for his role in what Geoff Boycott, the former England opening batsman, called yesterday ‘the finest moment’ in more than 50 years of watching and playing cricket.
But by far the biggest plaudits must go to Stokes. He has already provided us with one inspirational episode this summer, when his never-say-die batsmanship helped England win the one-day World Cup Final against New Zealand.
And now Stokes has played another stunning innings.
In that sense, he is indeed reminiscent of England’s greatest all-rounder Botham, whose feats in the 1981 Ashes series have gone down in sporting legend.
Indeed, there are remarkable similarities between the 1981 Headingley Test and yesterday’s triumph. In cases, the two explosive innings took place on the fourth afternoon in the third Test of the series.
In both cases, England looked doomed; in 1981, most players, commentators and officials had checked out of their hotels before the fourth day had begun.
At one stage, when Botham had just started his innings, the bookies’ odds were flashed up on the big screen at the ground as 500-1 against England.
Like Stokes, Botham succeeded through a brilliant eye, outstanding courage and brutal intimidation. Miracles are not meant to occur, but they have now happened twice at Headingley in the past 40 years.
The batting of Stokes and Botham (now aged 63 and part of yesterday’s TV commentary team) are a reminder of why cricket at its best is such a captivating sport.
Forget its brickbats. The game — so intrinsically English by history, having said to have been developed in the communities of iron- and glass-workers deep in the Kentish Weald — can produce the sublime, the unexpected, the aesthetic, the inspiring.
Bedlam: England fans can barely believe their eyes after watching Ben Stokes lead his team to one of their greatest ever Ashes victories, scoring 135 not out and sharing a 76 stand for the final wicket with Jack Leach
The late U.S. comedian Robin Williams once described the game as ‘baseball on Valium’ — but he could not have been more wrong.
As the World Cup Final and Stokes’s century demonstrate, cricket has the ability to enthral audiences for hour upon hour, something that can be said of few other human activities.
Another great American comic, Groucho Marx, was invited to watch a Test at Lord’s and, halfway through the afternoon, was asked how he was enjoying the play. ‘It’s great, but when does it start?’ he replied sarcastically.
He would hardly have uttered such sentiments had he been at Headingley yesterday. Like all the best sports, cricket can also be a vehicle for the expression of patriotism.
This is not — as some Left-wing critics pretend — another form of insular, flag-waving nationalism but rather the noble desire for solidarity, and love of country.
The cheering of England supporters over the past four days at Headingley was an expression of modern multicultural inclusivity.
In fact, they reserved some of their loudest acclaim for the young fast bowler Jofra Archer, who tore through Australia’s first innings with six wickets in only his second Test.
Born in Barbados, Archer epitomises modern English cricket’s enthusiastic embrace of diversity, also reflected in the successful careers of all-rounder Moeen Ali and leg-spinner Adil Rashid.
Headingley also highlights timeless British virtues, such as stoicism in the face of daunting odds. Stokes and Leach embodied the spirit of Dunkirk or Rorke’s Drift.
In few other sports, could a balding, bespectacled figure such as Jack Leach emerge as a hero.
His innings will go down as the greatest one-run not out in history, just as Ben Stokes’s achievement will never be forgotten.
The Ashes are still alive. Hope and glory are in the ascendant, too.