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Comment

Have England ever before produced such a competitive, utterly compelling and talented cricketer as Stokes?

When in the middle of a cauldron, England's captain produces magic. But sometimes even titans fall short

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
03-Jul-2023
Ben Stokes' innings earned him a pat on the back from Steven Smith, England vs Australia, 2nd Ashes Test, Lord's, 5th day, July 2, 2023

Ave: Stokes produced the kind of innings that draws praise from opponents and supporters alike  •  Associated Press

"Oh wow! In your life, have you seen anything like that?" The words of the commentator Verne Lundquist at the moment Tiger Woods holed his famous chip from the back of the 16th green at Augusta National. For two sessions of play yesterday at Lord's, Lundquist might have been repeating himself ad nauseum. No one had ever heard Lord's like it, and only a lucky few had been there to see anything like it - the World Cup final four years ago, remember that drama and all therein? Of course, you do.
So here we were again, same bloke at the wicket, again flying pretty much solo. From his crafted score of 82, Ben Stokes flicked the switch on his superpower to hit the three consecutive sixes that took him to a hundred. This might have been done before in Test cricket, but probably not with the Ashes at stake and the odds stacked in the opponent's favour. It was as if the stumping of Jonny Bairstow had fired the Clark Kent in Stokes to shed the specs and civvies and don the tights and cape.
A good number of people in the ground were going nuts - look, they said, there he is, just in time to bring justice to this unseemly affair - while the rest of us began to think back to the emotions of Edgbaston 2005 and Headingley 2019: the fidgets and nervous giggles, the dry mouth, churning gut, shuffling feet and sweaty palms. It was much of the same cast as 2019 on the stage too, though Nathan Lyon was suffering from a calf injury instead of the insults social media threw his way after he fumbled the ball. Pat Cummins and Company versus Ben Stokes: none but the brave; the last man standing - hard and proud.
Have England have ever produced such a competitive, never-say-die, utterly compelling and so hugely talented a cricketer? Can any of Hammond, Jardine and Larwood; Hutton, Compton, Laker, May and Trueman; Dexter, Greig, Willis, Gower, Gough or Vaughan have matched this man's colossal impression? No. Can even Botham (!) or Flintoff (!) or Pietersen have equalled Stokes for the clarity of thought he applies to the problem and the level of conviction applied to the solution? Doubt it. Each of these men went somewhere others had not been before but none had quite such overarching control of the situations in which they found themselves.
To the wider question, "In your life, have you seen anything like that?", the answer probably is still no. Except perhaps for Viv. Like Garry Sobers before him and Brian Lara after, Viv Richards could do stuff others couldn't: grab a game and own it to the point at which the opposition become helpless. Even Sobers and Lara might not have had such headlong mastery over those around them. So with the bat, it's Viv Richards. With the ball, it might be any of Lillee, Marshall, Akram or Warne.
And even they, these titans, on occasion fell short. As Stokes did yesterday. In the kryptonite age of every fielder on the fence and bumpers that fly over heads, the journey to 371 runs in the fourth innings of a Test match taken by effectively just one man becomes almost impossible. Eventually Australia twigged that to hide the ball from Stokes outside off stump was safer than to buy his wicket with the head-high bouncers he was routinely thumping into the stands. From that moment, even Stokes was rendered impotent. Where he fell, so too, inevitably, did England.
Can any of Hammond, Jardine and Larwood; Hutton, Compton, Laker, May and Trueman; Dexter, Greig, Willis, Gower, Gough or Vaughan have matched Stokes' colossal impression? No. Can even Botham or Flintoff or Pietersen have equalled Stokes for the clarity of thought he applies to the problem and the level of conviction applied to the solution? Doubt it
At Headingley four years ago, Joe Root's 77 matched Ben Duckett's 83 here at Lord's. After Root, Joe Denly made 50 that day and Bairstow 36. There were no such sideshows yesterday. Post-Duckett there was only Stokes, though 36 balls of courageous reserve across two hours for a return of 11 runs by Stuart Broad deserved applause and respect.
Bairstow deserves mention too, of course. With the redheads and the beards came the belief. In truth, the swift departure of Bairstow was a creaser for the home crowd. Was he dippy? Probably. Was the ball dead? Hardly. Was he out? Yes. Should he have been recalled? Maybe, maybe not.
The preamble to the laws of cricket - which embraces "the Spirit of Cricket", as intended by Colin Cowdrey - talks mainly about fair play, respect, playing hard and fair, accepting the umpire's decision, applying self-discipline and showing politeness to your opponent. As a comparison, there is a preamble to the United States constitution. It begins with the words "We the people" and continues with a brief introductory statement about the US constitution's fundamental purposes and guiding principles. Courts have used it as reliable evidence of the founding fathers' intentions. It mixes substance with idealism, talking about justice, tranquility, defence, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. It is open to interpretation, if less so than the spirit-of-cricket preamble, which is an idea that is received and acted upon differently in different parts of the world.
The interpretation of anything, from divorce to the giving of a two-foot putt, can lead to disagreement and dispute. By the letter of cricket's law, Bairstow was out. In one fluid and rather brilliant motion, Alex Carey caught the ball and underarmed it at the stumps, which he hit. At this point Bairstow was out of his ground. How can a crowd take off against that? Bairstow, who had ducked a bouncer, checked the position of his feet, noted he was in his crease and promptly walked out of it. At exactly that moment, Carey's throw was on its way. What later happened in the Lord's pavilion was unedifying, as was the chant of the crowd, who sang about cheating Australians. But this is the Ashes and people care. Quite how much was suddenly apparent.
Stokes has said he would have thought about the spirit of cricket and may well have withdrawn the appeal if he was the fielding captain. There are other captains who agree with him. That's fine too. If a law is open to interpretation, it becomes open house to everyone. Obviously enough, there was no gain in Bairstow's action but Carey had spotted Bairstow out of his ground previously, which explains the immediacy of his action.
Relate this to a non-striker being run-out backing up and the difference between the non-striker lazily dragging his bat across the return crease as the bowler reaches his delivery stride and the one in which a single is needed to win the game and the batter is clearly looking to gain a yard or more. You might forgive the first example with a warning but not the second. Maybe one day Cummins will think he could have recalled Bairstow; maybe he won't. We all make mistakes, and often, others forgive them. At Lord's, Cummins was not in a forgiving mood.
In summary, if Carey had been standing up to the stumps and Bairstow had left the ball alone, would Bairstow have left his ground before the umpire's call of "Over"? No. Simple. But how the dogs began to howl!
It is worth repeating that none of us had ever seen or heard Lord's like it - so visceral. This was first evident the previous evening when Mitchell Starc "caught" Duckett. Except that he broke his knee-slide by grounding, palm-down, the hand that had the ball in it, so, by the letter of the law - with the ball on the grass and his body in motion and not wholly under control - it wasn't out. By yesterday afternoon, the visceral had turned downright hostile.
And the word on the street is that Test cricket is dying. Not here it isn't. Here Test cricket sells, and for the Ashes, it sells like hot cakes. The first morning at Headingley on Thursday should be fun.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator