Joe's dream (from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but with apologies to Sir Tim Rice)
I closed my eyes, drew back the curtain
To see for certain what I thought I knew
All around the land, people were hoping
That we'd be coping
Any dream will do
For the third consecutive day, the sun shone when Joe Root drew back that curtain and the possibilities and pitfalls of Test match cricket hit him between the eyes. He will not have slept much; Michael Vaughan doesn't remember a single good night's rest during the six-week period of the 2005 series. Once the partying was over, Vaughan reckons he slept for a week.
Root's batting on Saturday had given England hope. For a tad short of five hours he had adopted the manual written by another favourite son of "God's country", the one who is Yorkshire's second highest run scorer of all time - Geoffrey Boycott - by defending his wicket as if his life depended upon it.
Root knew that his long vigil had begun the process of turning hope into expectation. He knew too that expectation is a different thing from hope, for it heightens senses and races hearts, not just those of the players either but of the nation. His greatest frustration will have been the failure to do it justice, especially by falling so soon after the start of Sunday's play. Had he stayed at the crease through the morning, he might have exorcised Friday's demons: feeble Friday, when 67 was the sum total of the team effort before catches were dropped - one by him - and the Ashes began the journey back from whence they came.
Ben's verse (again, with apologies to Sir Tim Rice)
A crash of drums, a flash of light
My World Cup mates flew out of sight
The colours faded into darkness
I was left alone
Ben Stokes had been here before, recently. Abandoned on this same ground against Sri Lanka in the World Cup - his partners having choked - even Ben, brilliant Ben, couldn't quite manage on his own. At Lord's, in the final, Jos Buttler played a fine hand until the pressure told and the tail was all that was left to work with. On that occasion, as none of us will ever forget, Stokes did pull it off on his own. Well, the tie anyway. He got a bit of help come the Super Over.
"People not into cricket are missing a game that challenges mind and body; a game that encourages personality and defines character; a game that is for one and all, whatever has gone before and whatever is to come. Stokes has thrilled them all"
Now here he was, at Headingley again, alone again, or...
For the period after which Root fell and Stokes' admirable resistance and restraint was paired with a boisterous Jonny Bairstow, the very unlikely became really quite possible. Bairstow brought fizz to the batting, as if he were a Berocca dropped into a glass of humdrum tap water. So dynamic was the fiery Yorkshireman - chest out, toes twinkling, hands whipping through the ball - that he roused Stokes from the practicality of defence to the excitement of attack. Suddenly, there were two exceptional cricketers busy in the art of batsmanship: the time-honoured stuff of blocking straight balls, leaving wider ones and smashing bad ones.
If Bairstow could be ticked off for the manner of his post-lunch dismissal, he will live forever in the hearts of English cricket fans for kick-starting our hero.
Yes, his flap at a short and wide ball was pusillanimous but surely one of Buttler and Chris Woakes would provide ballast for Ben. No. Nor did Jofra Archer or Stuart Broad.
Seventy-three to win then, nine down, and time for the lesser-spotted Leach. By heaven if you want to summarise the unpredictability of cricket, you can point to England's dependency this summer on a straight bat played by Jack Leach. Almost certainly, the most important 17-ball unbeaten single in the history of the game was made at Headingley on Sunday afternoon by the unlikely lad called Leach.
Geoffrey Boycott on Channel 5: "In more than 50 years of playing and watching, it was the greatest innings that I have seen."
Agreed. Perhaps the greatest ever. VVS Laxman, Brian Lara, Kusal Perera and others from the black-and-white and sepia ages have their claim but England were knocked over for 67 first time around and needed to score comfortably more than they had ever scored before to win a Test match. Indeed, this was the first time in 130 years that a team making less than 70 in the first innings of a Test had gone on to win.
Consider a few points. Upon the innings hung Joe's dream, to win back the Ashes. The Australian attack is high-quality. The pitch was tricky. The new ball was due seven overs into the day's play. The captain left the scene before it was taken. Numbers 6 and 9 made 51 between them; numbers 7, 8 and 10 just 2. So of the 200 required when Root was out, 54 came from one end and 132 from Stokes. Incredible. (You're thinking the math doesn't add up: the innings had 31 extras). And above all these is the expectation; the heightening of the senses and the racing hearts. The whole damn country was watching and he knew it. This was Ian Botham in '81 and Andrew Flintoff in '05... and then some. He is now a shoo-in for the Sports Personality of the Year; no one else need show up.
Lara says that an innings comes in two parts: the 45 minutes at the beginning, which is owned by the bowler, and the remainder, which is his. Stokes took this to an extreme, resolving to occupy the crease and wear down the Australians. Arguably, he overdid it and rendered himself strokeless. After 73 balls he had just three runs. Opponents fear Stokes the batsman, not Stokes the blocker. He had to change gear and did so to staggering effect.
There were notable adjustments and improvements to his batting, particularly in defence against Nathan Lyon, who has previously troubled him. Instead of lining up the ball with his left shoulder and playing so square-on that he was in effect playing across the spin, he lined it up with his right shoulder - his leading shoulder - and countered the spin relatively comfortably. Against the quicks, he rarely let his hands get away from his body and chose not to cover-drive because of the ball's tendency to "stay" in the dry pitch. This discipline is hard to maintain, especially if runs are not coming elsewhere. He left the ball outside off stump with patience and skill, doubtless smarting after his wild shot out there in the first innings.
When it came to up the ante, he hit 11 fours and eight sixes with truly extraordinary power. One of those sixes, the reverse-sweep, was just ridiculous.
For all this, one thing puts the innings above all others and that thing is the plan. Few cricketers have such game-awareness, fewer still have the calm to apply it and next to no one can shepherd the tail to this devastating effect. It's not like it's the first time either. If one of those guys behind him in the batting order against Sri Lanka had kept their cool, he would be three from three this summer alone. Stokes takes it deep, which needs courage and immense self-belief. Thus, his gift is the belief that anything is possible if he stays in. Amidst pretty much unbearable, stomach-churning tension, he stayed in all right and achieved the seemingly impossible.
"Bairstow brought fizz to the batting, as if he were a Berocca dropped into a glass of humdrum tap water"
Without a hint of rancour - and what a fine ambassador for Australian cricket he is - Tim Paine pointed out that "superbly as Ben played, he got lucky". By this he must mean the lbw that would have gone against Stokes if Australia had had a review left. True. But is an innings like that playable without a touch of luck? In truth, Paine made Stokes' luck with the pointless review of a rejected lbw appeal against Leach moments earlier. The point of the DRS is to correct obvious umpiring mistakes, not to hopefully question them in times of need. Paine is no more at fault here than any captain of any country across the world but he chose a bad moment for the use of his one remaining trump card.
Boycott on Twitter: "@benstokes38 saved the Ashes and gave us a magical inspirational innings. Even better than his World Cup performance. Well done."
The Ashes of 1981 lit up a country darkened by the straitjacket of austerity, battles with unions, and an overall malaise that Margaret Thatcher fought to put right. The Ashes series of 2005 was the last televised on free-to-air and gave a love of the game to the twentysomethings of today who are pretty much the youngest followers of Test cricket left out there. It is now possible - how we wish probable - that the Ashes of 2019 will inspire another generation to see Test cricket's irresistible narrative as one worth following. They will tell their friends about it too.
Paul Simon: "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts."
As for Stokes, well, he's just magic. People not into cricket are missing a game that challenges mind and body; a game that encourages personality and defines character; a game that is for one and all, whatever has gone before and whatever is to come. Stokes has thrilled them all. A year and a half ago, he surely wondered if he would play the game at international level again. Now he is a national hero, having come up with an innings that even Don Bradman might not have imagined.
As for Joe's dream… it's alive! So much so that you're not getting any sleep till September 16, Joe, when we all say goodnight from The Oval.