And the outfield, according to Sky’s Ian Ward, “is a bog”. Without sunshine there’s only so much mopping up can achieve. My 2pm start optimism looks wildly cock-eyed. Anyway … hope springs and all that.
Meanwhile … what were you doing a year ago today? Ben Stokes was making history. Here’s Scyld Berry on that monumental knock:
It might not have been the greatest Test match, because there have been 2357 of them, but Ben Stokes’s match-winning and series-saving 135 was unequivocally the finest ever played for England because of the immensity of the pressure he was under.
Two of the hitherto finest innings for England were played at Headingley – Graham Gooch’s 154 against West Indies in 1991 and Ian Botham’s 149 – but neither faced such a fourth-innings crisis as Stokes did, with England 1-0 down in the Ashes and unable to regain the urn if they lost, and only Jack Leach to help him score the last 73 runs to win.
Stokes had scored only 61 at this stage, when England had nine wickets down. He had been as dormant as a volcano, because Australia’s bowling had been so good: after 66 balls he had scored two runs. But therein lies the secret of all of Stokes’s miraculous innings: he plays himself in before attempting the impossible, in this case, England’s highest ever successful run-chase (332 the previous record), and their highest match-winning stand for the tenth wicket by far.
Three Yorkshire elements had played a vital part in softening up Australia ahead of Stokes’s assault. One was Joe Root who had blocked and blocked on Saturday afternoon to put lead in the boots of Australia’s four bowlers, forcing their quicks into fifth and sixth spells. Root faced 322 balls for his 77 – and, thereby, teed up the tired Josh Hazlewood for Stokes to smash for 19 in one over.
The second local element was Jonny Bairstow, who helped Stokes by upping the tempo when Australia took the second new ball. Stokes had been stuck – England could not score a run for the first 25 minutes of day four – but Bairstow sensed the moment to counterattack, and pressurised James Pattinson in particular. Four overs suddenly cost 36. One of Pattinson’s cost 13, and even though only four of them came off Bairstow’s bat, the extras – like five wides – betrayed Australia’s first anxieties.
His second most astonishing stroke was the scoop for six, against Cummins no less, bringing England’s target down to 40. Next it was Hazlewood’s turn to be thrashed for that 19 off an over, when Stokes pulled a four and swept a six – and this was not just brawn and talent and a superman’s motivation, but brain too, because he was targeting the Western Terrace as the shorter of the two square boundaries.
Hazlewood, the hitherto unsloggable Hazlewood, was not going to be released yet from his torment – that of a cricketer knowing he is losing the game for his side. After four and six off his first two balls, Stokes pulled another six – into the Western Terrace of course. England wanted – desired, craved, yearned for – 18 to win.
During this epic onslaught Stokes had three pieces of luck. First, no tea break intervened to disrupt his flow, as nine wickets were down and the interval delayed. Second, he was dropped. Third, Australia wasted a review wantonly, or desperately, so they had none left, when they would have won by one run.
Lyon conceded only a single to Stokes off five balls, while Leach brought the house down by blocking the last. Cummins again, with 17 to win, and here the second piece of luck, when Marcus Harris ran in from third man but could not hold on. Stokes chastened? He pulled the next ball for four, and straight-drove the next for four more in his most regal stroke. Eight to win after another single off Cummins, and two blocks by Leach which Stokes, on his knees at the non-striker’s end, could barely watch.
Australia were caught in the headlights, as they were more than once in 1981, mesmerised by the force which is an allrounder whose time has come; the element of inspiration has not featured in their methodical game-plans. Paine tried nothing new, so Stokes launched Lyon again and watched – on his haunches – as the ball cleared Marnus Labuschagne at long-off: had Labuschagne caught it, he, not Stokes, must have been player of the match. A single to tie, which Stokes tried to run after reverse-sweeping – and, amid tumult, Leach would have been run out when sent back if Lyon had not fumbled the throw.
James Anderson had been dismissed by the second last ball of the Sri Lanka Test here. Not Leach who steadfastly pushed a single to level the scores. Without further ado Stokes smote through the covers to bring fielders to their knees, and spectators to their feet, achieving what had been impossible, and levelling this series.
Leach’s single, in what was the final over, was his crucial contribution to the stand of 76, and Stokes’s 74. The third piece of luck was Paine wasting his last review on Leach who was nowhere near LBW to Cummins. When England needed two to win, it transpired that Stokes would have been given out on review when he missed a sweep at Lyon. Fate, and Joel Wilson, were understandably on Stokes’s side.
Idle to compare this climax with that of the World Cup final: that was white ball and this was red. Suffice they were both unique moments in a sport which seems ever more capable of epic finishes. The fourth Test begins at Old Trafford on Wednesday week, and Stokes is already the equal of Botham in 1981, or Andrew Flintoff in 2005, and perhaps with more to come.