Stokes, and the miracle that wasn't

England are 2-0 down in the Ashes. Stokes scored a stunning 155. As time wears on, they will be treated as independent events

Ben Stokes shapes up for another big one, England vs Australia, 2nd Ashes Test, Lord's, 5th day, July 2, 2023

Looking fate in the eye and causing it to blink  •  AFP/Getty Images

There are, let's say, three types of miracles.
There are miracles written in religious texts. There are miracles that happen in every day life, like a train arriving just as you reach the platform. And then there are miracles that take place on sporting fields, neither divine nor happy coincidence, yet occupy this contradictory grey area of happening right in front of you and yet seemingly from out of this world. Moments when one man, let's say Ben Stokes, looks fate in the eye and asks it to dance.
But sometimes, miracles don't end up being miracles at all. The crying statues of deities merely condensation in a badly insulated room. The train you jump on is eastbound when you actually wanted to go west. And one of the most outrageous Ashes innings by an Englishman ends up being a footnote in a convincing Australian victory.
There was a point when you believed you were witnessing another Stokes wonder. And there is no shame in admitting that. Here at Lord's, there was all the marvel we had witnessed before: the inner strength from the 2019 World Cup final on this very ground, the audacious striking of Headingley 2019 against this opponent, and the ruthlessness of 2022's T20 World Cup final.
All three of those match-winning performances came on a Sunday, just as it was here. With God resting on the seventh, Stokes sensed an opportunity to be that higher power on day five of this second Test. This time, for nothing.
England are now 2-0 down in the Ashes, Stokes scored a stunning 155 and as time wears on, they will be treated as independent events. And because of Stokes, this Test felt like it was fractured into two very distinct parts.
One contained four days' play, then 21 overs at the start of day five and 9.2 overs at the end. A lot of bouncers were bowled. A lot of pull shots played - most not well. Mitchell Starc took a catch that he actually dropped. Stuff happened, judgments were made, things were said, articles were written.
The other was this swirling black hole of 21 overs sandwiching between those two Sunday passage with England's captain at its epicentre, bending everything that preceded it back on itself almost to breaking point, as those observing were sucked into this world Stokes had on his own.
His trigger for this period of maelstrom was different to the other three. Lord's '19, Headingley '19, MCG '22 were extensions of an allrounder's mindset; always wanting to contribute, mixed with a personal dose of not wanting to let his mates down. And while those aspects were present here, this "miracle" carried a stench of Old Testament fury.
It was only in hindsight that you realised there was a reason Stokes protested the Bairstow stumping with only a hint of dissent. "I didn't want to get myself sidetracked by something that I couldn't change," he later explained
You could say Jonny Bairstow's stumping was the spark for the gasoline, but Stokes is the spark and the gasoline, and since becoming captain, he has been reluctant to mix the two. Until Alex Carey's under-armer gave him as good a reason as any. And so, with him on 62 off 126, they were reintroduced together.
Before the sixes, those seemingly unending sixes raining hellfire on the Tavern and Mound Stand - not including the one the previous night from Stokes the mortal - there were as many fours as horsemen warning of impending doom. Cameron Green was following orders to go short, but none of the three men on the fence could stop Stokes puncturing midwicket or flipping all two-metres of the quick around the corner. Green returned with a wider line for his next over. To the leg-side fence he went once more, this time through Josh Hazlewood.
Only then came the sixes. Oh lord, the sixes! By now, each boundary was scored by cheers followed by a rendition of "same old Aussies, always cheating". A day at Lord's six times cheaper producing six times as much noise.
Green was taken for three on the bounce, sent into the stands at square leg with his back to the pavilion. The third - so flat it threatened to punch a hole all the way to Paddington Station just over a mile away - took him to a 13th century from 142 deliveries.
Just like Headingley, there was no celebration. From him at least.
Down came Stuart Broad, punching both hands in the air as he continued his role as the one who promised a reckoning. His innings - if you can call it that given the most notable bits came when he wasn't actually facing up - was akin to a preacher at Speaker's Corner wishing ill on all sinners. He baited close-in fielders with dramatic acts of staying in his crease, and constantly reminded Carey of burning in Ashes villainy. The quick-turned-troll knows as well as anyone what that's like.
It was only through Broad's histrionics you became aware of the scale of Stokes' focus. And only in hindsight you realised there was a reason he protested the Bairstow stumping with only a hint of dissent. "I didn't want to get myself sidetracked by something that I couldn't change," Stokes later explained.
There were more sixes to come. Hazlewood was pumped down the ground second ball after lunch, then twice in three balls two overs later. Two came off successive Mitchell Starc deliveries when the left-armer was reintroduced, retribution for three raps on the toes earlier, one of which was given LBW but overturned on review in the seventh over of the day when Stokes had 39. All the swings were calculated, even the fortuitous scuff on 114 which Steven Smith couldn't claim, and exclusively to the leg side when facing the quicks from the Nursery End.
The Lord's slope and the wind going towards the Tavern and Mound Stands minimised the risk. According to CricViz, he struck 75 runs from the 94 deliveries pitched shorter than ten metres across his first and second innings for no losses. The rest of the batters in this match combined for 241 off 491 with 16 dismissals.
As Cummins patted Stokes on the back with the England captain making his way back, the crash back to reality was complete. The 9.2 overs required for the remaining three wickets were irrelevant. Stokes' end was the game's end
There were other moments of mindfulness within the maelstrom. Bunts for singles to give him the strike because he only trusted Broad to face two or three balls an over in the bumper barrage. Blocks were applied when necessary.
"It just felt a lot more difficult to really take the attack and try and hit the boundaries or the sixes at the other end," Stokes later explained. "Just because the slope was against me and I just felt it was a lot more difficult for me to play the pull shot for me from that end [batting at the Nursery End]."
It was after the ninth and final six that things began to turn. Prior to the 67th over, Pat Cummins got his rattled bowlers together and removed the glaze from their eyes. With wide yorkers and better-directed short deliveries, those heaves became bunts and those bunts became blocks. And slowly, Stokes was dragged back to the mortal realm.
He was scoreless from 22 of his final 29 deliveries, restricted to just eight runs on foot. An attempt to rally against the tightening shackles resulted in a flail of hands and a looped catch to backward point that was taken by a visibly nervy Carey.
The relief from Australia pierced English gasps. A saviour in home eyes now a vanquished demon in those of the Australians. As Cummins patted Stokes on the back with the England captain making his way back, the crash back to reality was complete. The 9.2 overs required for the remaining three wickets were irrelevant. Stokes' end was the game's end.
As an innings and a passage, it will slot into Stokes' legend nowhere near the top but clear to the man himself and those who were there. With a return to Headingley just three days away, it will be used as fuel for what optimism remains within the rest of a squad needing to win three on the bounce. Stokes already has enough as it is.
A return to the real world brings a variety of questions.
Some are rhetorical. Like, "how many miracles does one international team need?" The beauty is we all benefit from witnessing those of Stokes' ilk accessing the farthest reaches of the spectrum where talent meets stubbornness the rest of us would not dare even dream of. Even for only 20-odd overs. Even in vain.
The more pertinent questions will be answered in the next week. Such as, will England's best chance for a first Ashes victory since 2015 be over at the earliest opportunity? And why does a team created in Stokes' image, who have been given all the tools to succeed by their leader, still need him as a saviour?
Finally, there is a question that can only be answered after it has been answered. That is if it ever is at all. Just how many more "miracles" does Ben Stokes have left? Because, through no fault of his own, this one has been wasted.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo