'I'd swap Headingley drama for an Ashes win' - Ben Stokes
Allrounder was England's stand-out performer of a memorable summer, but regrets the one that got away
Ben Stokes says that his memories of being England's matchwinner in both the World Cup final at Lord's and last month's incredible Headingley Test will stay with him forever, but that he would willingly sacrifice his heroic role in the latter in exchange for an Ashes victory.
Stokes completed a remarkable summer's work at The Oval on Sunday, where England squared the Ashes 2-2 with a 135-run win in the fifth and final Test. In doing so, they denied Australia their first series win in England since 2001, although the win was not enough to claim back the urn, which was successfully retained by Australia thanks to last week's victory in the fourth Test at Old Trafford.
But on a personal level, Stokes' summer could scarcely have been more of a triumph. In the Ashes, he was named England's Player of the Series for his haul of 441 runs and eight wickets, including that stunning unbeaten 135 in England's one-wicket win at Headingley, a performance that was hailed as one of the greatest Test innings of all time.
And, following on from his Player-of-the-Match display against New Zealand in the World Cup final, where he marshalled England's run-chase with an unbeaten 84 before crashing eight more runs in three balls in the Super Over, as England broke their 44-year duck to win their maiden 50-over title, albeit on boundary countback.
And now, with a month of down-time ahead of England's tours of New Zealand and South Africa, Stokes finally has a chance to take stock of a summer in which so much was expected of England's cricketers, and so much was ultimately delivered in a pair of campaigns that captivated the nation.
"It has been a blast," said Stokes. "Before England had played a game this summer we knew we had the World Cup and the Ashes ahead of us and now we're stood here at the end as World Cup winners and with a drawn Ashes series. Obviously we'd like to have won it, but we haven't lost anything.
In August last year, Stokes' career stood at a crossroads, as he stood trial for affray at Bristol Crown Court following a brawl outside a nightclub in September 2017, and since his acquittal, his desire to transform his reputation and make up for lost time has manifested itself in a series of outstanding performances - including a thrilling outfield catch in the World Cup opener against South Africa at The Oval; a trio of battling half-centuries against Sri Lanka, Australia and India that helped keep a floundering World Cup campaign on track, and a second Ashes century in the second Test at Lord's.
"All I wanted to do was have an impact in as many games as possible and help England win as many matches as possible this summer," he said. "It probably hasn't all sunk in yet, but at some point I'll be able to look back with some satisfaction at what we managed to achieve as a one-day team and a Test team this year.
"So many people have been in touch at various times during the summer, and that catch here at The Oval against South Africa feels like such a long time ago, but I guess that is where it all really started.
"It hasn't all been plain sailing because we had to dig ourselves out of a hole in the World Cup and then we had to scrap until the very last to get that trophy, but we got it.
"The same in the Ashes where we had to fight all the way to the end to get the draw, but we got it and I think that is something we can be so proud of. When things got tough, we didn't crumble, we stood tall to the end and showed the character in our dressing room.
"There have been some incredible highs and some moments that I can hardly believe happened, but they did and I will always be able to remember what it was like being out there in the middle when we won the World Cup or won at Headingley.
There have been some incredible highs and some moments that I can hardly believe happened, but they did and I will always be able to remember what it was like
"But as good a day as that was, I would still swap that drama at Headingley for an overall Ashes win though."
That opportunity slipped away in the Old Trafford Test, where Steve Smith's double-century established an Australian stranglehold on the contest that England were unable to escape, despite another battling fourth-innings display. And though Australia's subsequent celebrations would have been painful for England to witness, Stokes insisted that the team had needed no extra motivation to square the rubber at The Oval.
"Every game means something regardless," he said. "There is no such thing as a dead rubber against Australia and, with the Test Championship, there is something riding on each game with the points on offer.
"We were motivated enough to perform here and didn't need anything extra to get us going. We were pretty disappointed not to get the urn back after giving ourselves that chance at Headingley, but as a one-day group and a Test group this summer we've not lost anything."
Stokes paid tribute to his Ashes team-mates after the Oval win, not least the openers Rory Burns, whom he said had "set a great standard" for the batting line-up with 390 runs in tough conditions, and Joe Denly, whose dismissal for 94 in the second innings had left the dressing-room "devastated".
He also singled out Jofra Archer as "the sort of guy who can help get those Ashes back when we go Down Under", with his combination of fierce pace, relentless accuracy and huge stamina, and praised Stuart Broad for once again setting the tone for the bowling attack and proving that he's "nowhere near done" after claiming 20-plus wickets for the fourth time in an Ashes series, a record for an England bowler.
But, most of all, he said that the Oval win was a fitting send-off for England's coach, Trevor Bayliss, who is leaving the role that he took over in the summer of 2015, with the express aim of lifting that elusive World Cup.
"I'm not sure I'm looking forward to life without Trevor in the dressing room because he's been an amazing person to have around over the last four years," said Stokes.
"He obviously got brought in to do a bit of a job with our one-day cricket but he's had a massive influence on this group of Test cricketers too.
"I'm really glad that we managed to win this last game for him. There were a lot of things that we were playing for out there and Trev was one of them.
"I'm so glad that we got to send him off with a win because he has been amazing for English cricket.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket