At 11 am on Sunday, as Joe Root and Ben Stokes strode out to resume England’s unlikeliest of run chases, even the most optimistic of England fans would have only dreamed of England chasing down the 203 runs they still needed to win the test and save The Ashes - and possibly Root’s captaincy.
It would be England’s highest ever run chase in Tests, after all. History would have to be made. Yes, Root had looked back to his best on Saturday- purposeful, feet moving, and putting the bad balls away. Yes, they still had seven wickets in the bank. Yes, it was set for perfect batting conditions again on day four.
But it couldn’t happen, could it? It goes against all conventional wisdom and all precedent. 359, in the fourth innings, against a relentless, snarling Australian bowling attack. It just couldn’t happen. Surely not. Cautious optimism was possibly the safest position to take at the start of play.
But this is Headingley, home of Ian Botham’s Test in 1981. This is Headingley, home of Graham Gooch’s titanic 154 in 1991. This is Headingley, home of Mark Butcher’s unbeaten 173 to steal the fourth Test from Australia in 2001.
When Root fell to Nathan Lyon, after adding just two runs to his overnight score of 75, dreams of a historic victory led by the ultimate captain’s innings faded. Jonny Bairstow, who looked close to his best at Lords across both innings, quickly racked up the runs and a fifty partnership with Stokes was not long in coming. The runs were flowing, and the crowd began to believe again.
When Bairstow slashed a short and wide ball from Josh Hazlewood to the slips, departing for 36, England’s hopes, built up by the ease at which the pair had put on their runs, were suddenly dashed. In came Jos Buttler, and memories of his match-saving partnership with Stokes in the World Cup final kept England fans hanging by a thread of optimism.
The spirit of that partnership was not to be resurrected - Buttler, having faced eight balls for just one run, was run out by Travis Head having raced halfway down the pitch only to be sent back by Stokes. A pinpoint throw left Buttler stranded as he scrambled back, and the dreams earlier that morning of a famous victory looked set to remain just that.
Pressure and bloody-mindedness
But this is Stokes, a World Cup final hero, world-class all-rounder and as stubborn as they come. A picture definition of bloody-mindedness. It didn’t matter that Chris Woakes - probably England’s last reliable batsman - was worked over by the short ball before tamely prodding a full delivery from Josh Hazlewood straight to cover. It didn’t matter than Jofra Archer could only add 15 runs before he tried one big shot too many and sent Lyon straight into the hands of Head at deep square leg. It didn’t matter either that Stuart Broad could only last for two deliveries before being pinned in front by James Pattinson.
It all seemed to be drawing to the most logical, natural conclusion. England, despite their valiant effort, would fall short. But this is The Ashes. And with that comes an unbelievable pressure on the 22 men on the field, and pressure can do funny things to the mind. It can make a man make decisions that ordinarily they would never consider for more than half a second. It can render a man unable to carry out the most basic aspects of their job. It can inspire super-human feats of endurance and skill.
The beauty of Test cricket is that, on days like today, all three of those things are on show. It’s a relentless, rigorous examination of character, skill, and the mind.
For example, in the 124th over of England’s second innings, with the hosts needing nine more runs to win, Tim Paine inexplicably reviewed a turned down LBW shout against Jack Leach that might as well have pitched on the next pitch over it was that far outside leg stump. It is hard to shake the feeling that if it were not for the context- the Ashes on the line, England edging closer to victory, Paine would have decided against the review.
Then in the 125th over, by this point just one run separating the teams, Leach charged down the pitch looking for a single that wasn’t there as Stokes picked out the man at backward point. The throw came into Lyon at the non-striker’s end, a straightforward run out that would have sealed the closest of victories and the Urn. Lyon fumbled his catch, Leach made his ground, and Australia’s last chance at victory came and went in the blink of an eye. The most basic, straightforward piece of fielding, the difficulty seemingly ramped up by the pressure.
This all came in the middle of one of the most remarkable sporting performances in recent memory. Stokes, who overnight was on two off fifty balls, had carefully and painstakingly racked up his slowest ever test half-century as chaos ensued at the other end. Amongst those fifty runs was a sign of things to come as he smote poor balls for four and crashed two sixes. As the tail came in to join him, the fours and sixes began to flow more regularly.
It all still seemed incredibly unlikely, with the most unlikely of heroes in Leach walking out as the last man with 73 runs still to get, England hoping he could channel his 92 against Ireland at Lords last month. Stokes at the other end, as all great sportsmen do, rose to the occasion and took the game by the scruff of the neck.
When he brought up his ton, with a rocketing four pulled through mid-on, it was difficult to tell if he was even aware of the milestone such was his lack of a reaction.
As Stokes continued on his increasingly inevitable, unstoppable charge, sending Hazlewood for 16 runs off three balls in the 121st over, belief once again rose around Headingley along with the decibel levels. Pat Cummins, the number one est bowler, was next to get the Stokes treatment, being smoked for consecutive fours two overs later. Then came the climax.
Stokes smashed Lyon for one final six, but couldn’t manage to get on strike for the next over with England just one behind. The over finished with Stokes barely surviving an LBW appeal on the last ball- it was plumb, but Joel Wilson saw otherwise and Australia had run out of reviews with which to try and overrule him. Leach, stubbornly holding out for 16 balls at this point, dropped a short delivery from Cummins into a gap on the leg side and scampered down the pitch, knowing England now could not lose. His job was done, the most important single he ever has and maybe ever will run. The series wasn’t quite over for England after all.
Cummins sent another short one down- this time misdirected and wide of off stump- and Stokes flayed it through the offside. The Durham man knew at once, before anyone else had possibly even heard the crack of leather on willow, that it was racing away for four. He knew he had pulled off the impossible. 135 bloody-minded runs, that didn’t just win a test match, that didn't just keep the Ashes alive for England, but made history.
At the start of the day, Australia would have been confident of securing the rn, if not slightly nervous. When England still needed 73 runs, and Australia just one wicket, they would have had one eye on the urn already. But this is Headingley, home of Ian Botham’s Test in 1981. This is Headingley, home of Graham Gooch’s titanic 154 in 1991. This is Headingley, home of Mark Butcher’s unbeaten 173 to steal the fourth Test from Australia in 2001. This is Headingley, home of Ben Stokes’s historic 135* to save the 2019 Ashes.