England were in dire straits after getting bowled out for just 67 in their first innings in the third Ashes Test in 2019. Here’s a team that had seven players who had won the ODI World Cup just over a month ago, looking absolutely hapless. Yes, it was a different format, but surely you wouldn’t have expected them to be this ineffectual – getting bowled out for their lowest Ashes innings total since 1948.
But Test cricket gives you a second chance. And weren’t England glad about that at Headingley, Leeds last summer.
It required a bit of magic. When you’re chasing a fourth innings target of 359, you obviously need wizardry. England had never successfully chased down such a 350+ target in a Test ever before. And they had been playing Test cricket for 142 years. Add to that, the hosts’ abysmal batting performance in the first innings, you’d think there was only going to be one winner and that was Australia. Mind you, an Australia win here and they would already retain the Ashes with two Tests to go.
You might have heard of the iconic Beatles song Here Comes The Sun where the lyrics go “Here comes the sun. And I say, it's all right”. The Headingley Test had a delayed start due to rain and while the following three days were sunny, for England, the sun came out and made things “all right” only on day four.
An out-of-the-ordinary performance was needed to chase down such a target and England had an extraordinary cricketer in Ben Stokes. When Stokes and Jonny Bairstow were batting with just over 100 runs needed, it looked an unlikely win was now a probability. But once Bairstow fell, the wickets began to tumble. Suddenly, England had gone from 245/4 to 286/9.
73 runs to win with one wicket in hand, the only person who stood in Australia’s way was Stokes. Hence, it was apt in a way that when the left-handed batsman hit the winning runs, former England captain Nasser Hussain while commentating said: “The Ashes well and truly alive because of one cricketer and that cricketer is Benjamin Stokes.”
Stokes’ unbeaten 135 at Headingley is surely up there with the greatest Test knocks of all time. England might have won the World Cup not long ago, but the events in the Ashes leading up to this day had made it seem like the ODI triumph was eons ago for England’s fans. Stokes had brought about much joy once again, much like the Beatles sang in Here Comes The Sun: “The smiles returning to the faces. It seems like years since it's been here.” Needless to say, that it wasn’t literally years for England, but there was that sort of feeling when they were bowled out for 67 just a couple of days earlier.
England and Stokes had taken advantage of their second chance in this Test. And how!
Three years earlier, Stokes was entrusted with bowling the last over of the World T20 final against West Indies. With the opposition needing 21 runs to win, England were firm favourites. Carlos Brathwaite, though, had other ideas. Stokes couldn’t get his length right and was hit for four successive sixes. From the doorstep of victory, England had lost.
Unlike Leeds where there was a second chance available in a couple of days, Stokes had to wait for a little over four years.
The England men’s team had never won the ODI World Cup previously, but going into the 2019 edition, they were certainly a favoured team to be victorious. There were a few hiccups during the league stage of the competition before they got through to the semi-finals where they thrashed rivals and five-time champions Australia.
For the second time in the four years following a humiliating group stage exit at the 2015 World Cup, Eoin Morgan’s side were in the limited-overs final of an ICC tournament. And for the second time in those four years, a spectacular final transpired. Stokes was the talking point once again – this time, for entirely different reasons.
Up against New Zealand, the country where he was born, Stokes’ unbeaten 84 helped England tie the game before winning the Super Over via the boundary rule. Unsurprisingly, he was named the Player of the Match. From heartbreak in 2016 to redemption in 2019 at the most grandeur stages in white-ball international cricket, Stokes had come a full circle.
Both of the above-mentioned performances came a year after Stokes was cleared of affray in an incident that took place outside a Bristol nightclub in September 2017. It was an incident that could have possibly ended his international career, but he only went on to play his best cricket soon after.
Didn’t we say something about second chances?