England might surrender the Ashes on the final day of the third Test at Perth today, but Ben Stokes laid down the template yesterday for their batsmen to follow if they are to take the fight to Australia in the remaining two Tests.
On a fourth day at the WACA, which drew few positives for the beleaguered tourists, the 99 runs added by Stokes and Ian Bell in about 20 overs for the fifth wicket was the highlight, helping England close on 251 for five, trailing Australia by 252 runs.
Stokes in particular provided a glimpse of what England might need at the No 6 batting position – someone who can take the fight to the opposition.
A combative cricketer sent home in disgrace from a Lions trip to Australia last winter, Stokes is repaying some of the faith shown in him by the England hierarchy.
While his more accomplished peers struggled, in tandem with Bell, the Durham all-rounder for the first time in the series made some of Australia’s bowlers toil in the heat.
Leaving the ball well outside the off stump, defending with dignity and a straight bat and refusing to be lured into the hook shot, Stokes posed some serious questions for Australia’s bowlers.
He was a revelation, pulling and driving Australia’s bowlers to the boundary with aplomb not seen from the tourists so far on this tour.
“Ben Stokes was outstanding I thought today,” Bell said later. “I think he’s got a fantastic future ahead of him. The way he’s shown he can play quick bowling, the way he hits down the ground. And just that attitude with the ball.
“I never see him moan about anything. He just gets on with it. He runs in all day. He bowls good pace. He showed today what he can do with the bat.”
Stokes took two wickets in Australia’s second innings but it was his array of shots around the ground and refusal to be intimidated that was most impressive as he reached a maiden test 50 off 69 balls in 96 minutes.
He ended the day on 72 not out, while Bell fell for 60 and their positive play helped in boosting England’s run rate.
England’s fourth innings has been one of the few times on this trip that they have managed to maintain a scoring rate above three-and-half runs an over for a sustained period.
That relieved some pressure on England’s under-fire wicketkeeper Matt Prior, who was on seven at the close of play.
The Australians took notice of Stokes. “I think he’s been very impressive, to see the workload he went through today and yesterday after Stuart Broad was injured,” said all-rounder Shane Watson.
“He sustained his pace really well the whole time and today he batted really beautifully, so I think he’s a very exciting prospect. He certainly doesn’t take a backward step at all, so I think he’s an exciting all-rounder and he’s only going to get better.”
Watson was in decent form himself. His 103 included 11 fours and five sixes, and he is sure Australia will finish the job today.
“We’re confident,” he added. “A good night sleep will freshen our bowlers up to be able to have a really good crack first thing in the morning.
“We have to bowl really well to give ourselves the best chance to be able to achieve a few dreams, for a lot of us who’ve been involved in the last few series especially.”