Ben Stokes 'just finds a way' as his rediscovered authority takes on a new significance

Allrounder's hundred and Steven Smith's concussion means his could be the most prized wicket on either side at Headingley

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Two Tests into a pulsating Ashes series, and the notion of "redemption" is already becoming very tedious. One journalist at Lord's even added the word to his listed of muted phrases on Twitter on Sunday afternoon, at the moment that Ben Stokes clipped Nathan Lyon off his toes to jog through to his seventh Test century and - lest we fail to notice the elephant in the room, let alone ignore it - his first since the events outside Mbargo nightclub on September 25, 2017.
Before the Fall. After the Fall … can't we all just move on? Just as Steven Smith is still being expected by some to keep apologising for events that occurred close to two years ago now, in spite a series of on-field performances that confirm that the sport is so much richer for his involvement than his banishment, so Stokes too can't help but be judged by his returns in the context of that incident.
And yet, it is clear that for Stokes in particular, that terrible night in Bristol and its career-threatening aftermath remain as enduringly relevant as ever, not because he feels he deserves to be punished for evermore, but because of his desire to bury those lingering bad memories between a mountain of new accolades.
And so it wasn't enough for Stokes to light the flame of the 2019 World Cup with that extraordinary outfield catch in the tournament opener at The Oval. Or to carry the team's batting when the wheels started to wobble in defeats against Sri Lanka and Australia. Or to dig deep and refuse to falter when New Zealand surged in the early stages of England's run chase in the final. Or to go beyond even his own exhausting limits, and do it all again minutes later in the Super Over.
No, that was just the start for Stokes as he enters, at 28, his prime as an international sportsman. Speaking to ESPNcricinfo's George Dobell in Jaipur earlier this year, Stokes said that his personal motivation for winning the World Cup was to ensure that the feat became the first paragraph of his rewritten player profile. That objective duly achieved, he's making a play for the rest of the word-count.
And so, in that context, a first Test century since Bristol feels very significant indeed. Not to mention, a first Test century at Lord's since his riotously carefree 101 from 92 against New Zealand four years ago. And his first against Australia since in December 2013 when, in only his second Test, he went toe-to-toe with Mitchell Johnson on a Perth flier, scoring 120 from 195 in an exhibition of pugnacity that was entirely at odds with the timid tone of England's overall campaign.
Self-evidently he's not the same cricketer that he was before his life choices became tabloid fodder. Prior to his recall in New Zealand in February 2018, Stokes' international career been rattling along at a strike-rate of 98.74 in ODIs and 63.77 in Tests (or 3.82 an over, brisk by any standards). Now that he has placed a greater premium on his wicket, those numbers have slipped to 87.16 and 48.45 respectively. And if, in doing so, he has sacrificed a few top-notes of destruction, then he's also sent self-destruction packing at the same time. That run of ODI form in early 2014, for instance - 0, 5, 5, 4, 0, 4, 0, punched locker, broken hand - isn't going to be replicated in a hurry.
And so it was fitting that Stokes' first Test century of his new era was a hard-fought grind. He could have been out three times in his first six balls as Lyon ragged it out of the rough outside the left-hander's off stump, and would have been out for 6 from 13 balls had Lyon again reviewed an lbw appeal that was hitting leg.
But somehow, he found a means to endure, by sliding ever deeper into his crease, watching the turn and shelving the sweep, and taking it upon himself to be the sheet-anchor that this England batting line-up so desperately needs, as it attempts an urgent and cruelly abrupt metamorphosis from pro-active, hard-handed white-ball bullies to soft-power Test survivors.
And on that note, it is also telling how Stokes' name has been exempt from the mutterings of post-World Cup burn-out that have afflicted so many of his team-mates in that glorious campaign. Jason Roy looks lost at the top of the order, Joe Root's form is in freefall, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow are fighting against instinct to make that transition. Moeen Ali has been canned, and is currently bowling seam-up for Worcestershire in a losing cause at Northampton. Aside from Stokes, only Chris Woakes and the new boy Jofra Archer seem genuinely unaffected by what's gone before, though Archer may be facing exhaustion issues of a different type if 44 overs per Test becomes the norm.
"It was a dogged hundred," Stokes admitted of an innings in which his first fifty came from 106 balls, a notch below that post-Bristol strike-rate. "I'm proud of how I managed to get through from not feeling great to playing my shots. That comes from experience and knowing all kinds of situations, Tests, ODIs, just finding a way to get there, keeping an eye on how many overs, how many runs to get us there."
"I looked at the score at 60-70 and I had no idea how I was still there," he added. "I was speaking to Graham Thorpe [the batting coach], saying 'nothing is working', and he said 'just find a way'. I know the bigger picture but sometimes you get annoyed. When it got to the stage where I could start playing my shots, everything felt a bit easier."
And it's a measure of Stokes' exhaustive groundwork that, once the time came to flick that switch, with England suddenly 200 runs to the good and scenting an opportunity to square the series with an aggressive declaration, he was able to up the tempo as surely as he had done in the World Cup final, powering Lyon out of the rough for consecutive sweeps for six, before calibrating his angles and options with a thinking-man's swagger to rattle through to his second fifty from 54 balls.
And in doing so, Stokes left a dent in one of Australia's key weapons in the series. Lyon began the innings level with Dennis Lillee on 355 Test wickets, and ended it on the same number after an admittedly luckless but nevertheless expensive analysis of 26-3-102-0.
"We kept out Nathan's good balls and when we attacked we really committed to doing it," said Stokes. "He could have had me five or six times to be honest, but I thought attack was the best form of defence by the end because every time I defended one I kept nicking it but finding the gap which was remarkable.
"I was running down the wicket and laughing at some points, thinking I can't be placing it any better. From a five-fer to none for 100 will give our batting unit a lot of confidence, especially on a pretty helpful wicket from spin. Not taking anything away from him, he bowled really well and probably didn't deserve none for 100."
And as the teams regroup and head for Headingley with the series at an apex, Stokes' quiet authority begins to take on an altogether new significance, especially if - as anticipated - Smith is deemed unfit to take his place in Australia's line-up.
In case it needs restating, Stokes missed the last Ashes due to those events he'd sooner not remember. He could be about to reach this series' make-or-break moment as the most prized wicket on either side.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket