“I’m babbling on, here. I don’t know what to say,” offered our hero to Michael Atherton in the post-match interview on Sky. Don’t worry Ben, neither do we, each and every one of us is lost for words because there are no words that can do justice to what we saw, to account for an innings that might never be bettered in Test cricket, or any form of this beguiling game for that matter.
We said the same thing 38 years ago, of course, and at this very ground when Sir Ian Botham transformed the cricketing landscape with an innings that defined the age. We could not imagine then that there might ever be anything to surpass Beefy’s finest hour, turning a lost Ashes cause into the most Homeric of victories. Well here it was, Headingley 2019, another preternatural display epic in scale, and one that the great man would admit was a celestial notch above his own.
In 1981 Botham hit the ball out of the park from a losing position, but he never thought he was building a platform for victory, no matter how spectacular his undefeated 149. Australia needed only 111 to win for goodness sakes after declaring on 401 in their first innings. John Dyson, who scored a ton first up, walked to the crease a second time thinking he could get the runs on his own. He had not reckoned with Bob Willis, obviously.
In this example Stokes, pictured, was Botham and Willis combined. You might recall how, after bowling poorly in the first innings then gifting his wicket away, he ran in like a beast in the second, sending down 15 overs on the spin at an average speed quicker than that of Jofra Archer. With that indefatigable effort late on the second day Stokes was already engaged in some kind of terrible one v XI conflict as if he were the only one capable of righting the appalling horrors of England’s first innings palsy.
Stokes took three wickets, slowed the Australian scoring rate to a trickle and ultimately wrestled back the initiative sufficiently to make yesterday’s wondrous pageant possible. David Gower, a cricketer of princely dimension himself, declared Stokes’ knock to be the best he had seen in 40 years as a player and a commentator. Gower was on the paddock when Botham was ripping it up in ’81, and in the Sky studio at Headingley asking Botham to make sense of what he had just witnessed.
“Stokes is a remarkable man,” Botham said. “I’ve banged his drum for a long time. He is the special one, valuable to cricket full stop, not just to England. He should enjoy every moment, take it in, that was a really remarkable performance. Maybe every so often you need something special. The whole country will be up for it now, every kid on every street corner.”
Botham might have gone further. This was not only England’s moment, or cricket’s. This was one for the whole of sport to savour, demonstrating the capacity of an ostensibly trivial pastime to say something profound about human kind. Thus was this the highest form of human expression in a sporting context. Like Leo Messi, Roger Federer or Tiger Woods, Stokes gives expression to genius and can be regarded as accomplished in his field as Ludwig van Beethoven, Vladimir Nabakov, Leonardo da Vinci or Vincent van Gogh were in theirs. Tidy.
To perform as Stokes did, to treat a high-pressure environment as if he were playing French cricket with his kids on the beach, was beyond comprehension. Six weeks after his pivotal role in helping his country win the World Cup for the first time Stokes brought the Ashes back to life.
No sane commentator thought England had a pulse after being bowled out for 67 in the first innings. None of right mind thought England had an earthly when a bespectacled No 11 joined Stokes at the wicket with 73 runs still needed for victory.
Only Stokes, it seems, believed the impossible was on. And off he set on his destructive, one-man rout of Australia. The reverse sweep for six of Nathan Lyon, the maximums off Australia’s keynote bowler Josh Hazelwood, hitherto considered godlike, and other monstrous blows were the freakish executions of a player operating beyond rational prompts in a realm known only to a higher authority.
It is possible that Stokes might not recognise himself when he watches the highlights, such was the otherworldly nature of what he achieved.