Ben Stokes reverse-slog-swept Nathan Lyon for a six, when England required 56 runs to win with one wicket in hand on the 4th day of the 3rd Test at Headingley, sending the crowd into a frenzy of excitement. Only a few minutes ago, England seemed done and dusted in the contest when Stuart Broad was dismissed as the ninth batsman in the innings with the home side still 73 runs away from the target. Michael Atherton, who would generally disapprove a stroke like that in normal circumstances, described it as an unbelievable shot being overwhelmed by the situation. That stroke from the left-hander was a statement that the game is not over until he is in the middle.
Stokes and Lyon have undergone an intriguing rivalry in the ongoing Ashes overshadowed by other enthralling aspects of the series - the searing contest between Jofra Archer and Steve Smith to name a few. Stokes and Lyon have played a real cat-and-mouse game triggered by the English all-rounder’s struggle against off-spinners.
The southpaw, who has a batting average of only 30.2 against off-spinners, his lowest against any kind of spinner, prompted the visitors to bowl Lyon consistently against Stokes. The all-rounder has faced 247 deliveries from the offie, the most he has faced against any bowler in The Ashes 2019. The age-old notion of a left-hander’s general struggle against off-spinners is another contributing factor towards the continuous tussle between the two cricketers in this series.
Stokes, however, has always had the edge over Lyon. Against all the off-spinners he has faced, he has been most prolific against Australia’s premier spinner.
But Lyon put the numbers behind him taking over the mantle of restricting Stokes beautifully. In the first three innings in this Ashes, Lyon bowled 69 balls at the all-rounder, conceded only 26 runs and dismissed him twice. On an average, the canny bowler had beaten or induced an edge off Stokes’ bat once every fourth ball he bowled to him.
In the first innings of the 2nd Test at Lord’s, Stokes carved Lyon through the vacant square-leg region for a four executing an imperious sweep shot to perfection. This was at the start of Stokes’ innings, when he was on nine. Four overs later, when Stokes tried to replicate that stroke, Lyon pitched the ball well within the line of the stumps. Stokes missed, he was hit on the pads and the left-hander was plumb in front of the stumps.
Stokes was dejected with the dismissal which came at a crucial point in England’s innings who were looking to revive themselves after conceding the 1st Test at Edgbaston. The all-rounder put his head down to make vital changes to his batting technique against Lyon. Broadcaster Mark Nicholas pointed out on commentary that while facing Lyon, Stokes was earlier lining up the ball with his left shoulder which was ultimately squaring him up against the natural angle of the ball turning away from him. He later began to line up Lyon with his leading shoulder - the right one - to defend the off-spinner more prominently and absorb the pressure against him.
More importantly, Stokes took the sweep shot out of his armoury - the shot that brought his departure in the first innings at Lord’s. In the subsequent innings, when Stokes redeemed himself with a hundred, he executed the sweep only when he was well set and England needed quick runs. The first time he played the sweep during the second innings was when he had gone past 70 and England were aiming for some quick runs before a declaration.
Recalling his Herculean effort at Headingley, Stokes implemented the sweep shot only when it was necessary. He was first seen sweeping, a reverse sweep gloved down to the turf, when England were nine down and 73 runs away from the target - a point at which he had faced 175 deliveries in his innings, out of which 73 came from Lyon. Next over, he played the aforementioned reverse sweep for a six, one of the most breathtaking shots in the series.
Overall, Stokes struck three maximums in Lyon’s two overs post Broad’s dismissal. From a point where the left-hander was put into submission by Lyon, Stokes dominated the off-spinner during a critical passage of play that forced the Australian skipper, Tim Paine to take his premier spinner out of the attack.
After being shut down by Lyon in the first three innings, Stokes has scored 99 runs from 178 balls without being dismissed by the off-spinner. As a result of inculcating the technical change mentioned above, the southpaw has decreased the percentage of the balls missed and edged by a significant margin.
“The Ashes is well and truly alive because of one cricketer and that cricketer is Benjamin Stokes”, said Nasser Hussain at the end of the Headingley Test. England’s resurgence in the series has run parallel to Stokes turning the corner against Lyon.
The Australian skipper, Tim Paine has still backed his ace spinner to be a huge weapon against Stokes. With two more Tests to go in the series, the contest between these two highly acclaimed cricketers could play a decisive part in the outcome of the series.
One tip to Nathan Lyon - he can try coming to Stokes from over the wicket angle. The spinner has bowled each of his 247 deliveries to Stokes from around the wicket and the left-hander averages only 12.5 while facing the offies from over the wicket, meagre number in comparison to 33.08 from round the wicket.