Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo
It was meant to be Ben Stokes' Ashes.
The phenomenal innings at Headingley, the victory that defied all logic and probability and would surely break Australia's spirit, the continuation of England's golden summer of cricket; all the elements melded together and pointed to a present that should have echoed glories of the past. Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and now, surely, Ben Stokes. It was meant to be.
Except that it wasn't. This has indisputably been Steven Smith's Ashes.
The masks had been laid out on the seats at Edgbaston. Dozens of Stokes faces donned by fans to pay homage to the World Cup final hero. A plane circled the sky above the stadium, the words, 'Arise Ben Stokes - Barmy Army', floating in its slipstream.
There were masks for Smith, too. Not of adulation but derision; a snapshot of torment taken at his lowest moment, crying at the infamous press conference that marked his return from the ill-fated tour of South Africa and plunged Smith and the Australian team into an abyss. They were meant to inflict pain, as were the chants and songs and boos. Their effect was minimal, as Smith batted in his otherworldly bubble, seemingly unaware of their existence: 144 runs in the first innings, 142 in the second. All that was left to do was make impotent jokes about the nervous 140s.
First Test, Edgbaston. Player of the Match: Steven Smith
The sun is shining and it's a beautiful morning at St John's Wood, a couple of days before the second Test. At the Nursery Ground, Joe Root is batting in the far right net and his kit is impeccable, as always. He wears a t-shirt that emphasises the slimness of his forearms. Stokes occupies the net on the far left, wearing a sleeveless tank that exposes his tattooed muscled biceps. They are both facing quicks. Root nicks a delivery and immediately hunches over. "Come on, Joe!" he berates himself in his distinctive Yorkshire twang. "Stop it. Stop DOING it!"
Moments later, Stokes also edges a ball. "No, Ben," he roars. "You f***ing dumb ****!" The few journalists present stifle their laughter and muse over the broad church that is the England cricket team.
A few days later, the cricket world held its breath as Smith was felled by a brutal Jofra Archer bouncer. His first thought as he lay on the Lord's turf was of his friend and team-mate, Phillip Hughes, who never recovered from a similar sickening blow. After passing the medical tests, he implored Justin Langer to allow him to return to the field; if he didn't go back out and bat, he reasoned, he couldn't have his name engraved on the honours board. He resumed his innings but the bubble had been pierced; he was pinned on the pad by Chris Woakes, out for 92 and, ultimately, out of action for the third Test.
Stokes came to the crease in the third innings in familiar circumstances; England's top order had crumbled and he needed to hold the breach. An unbeaten 115 followed by Archer's surgical strikes sent Australia into retreat; only the rain could prevent victory, and it did.
Second Test, Lord's. Player of the Match: Ben Stokes.
The Headingley match will always be known as Stokes' Test, of course. Faced with certain defeat, Stokes held the bridge and performed feats that will, in decades to come, be eulogised as legend. On a sun-drenched Sunday, his outrageous and courageous innings transcended the sport and enthralled a nation, instilling unbridled jubilation and belief. 'Arise, Ben Stokes' had morphed from a cheeky flying tribute to a phrase on many a social media post and newspaper headline. It was the innings of the series, one of the greatest of all time.
In the drama's denouement, Stokes perched at the back of the room behind the cameras while Root addressed the assembled media. A journalist asked Root if there was anything that Stokes couldn't do, and Root smilingly replied that Stokes' handwriting was terrible. Out of the sight and hearing of most of those present, Stokes caught his captain's eye. "Prick!" he mouthed. "His language isn't great, either," added Root. Stokes is forever the lad, a knockabout rough diamond.
Smith, meanwhile, makes only cameo appearances in the wings, batting in the nets before play under the watchful eye of the Australian medical staff, who must firmly restrain him from doing more than he should.
Third Test, Headingley. Player of the Match: Ben Stokes.
Smith doesn't like anything that's out of place. He's obsessive about things looking and feeling right; it helps him construct his bubble. He spoke of his discomfort in wearing the stem guard neck protectors, describing the racing of his heart and the claustrophobia that brought to mind the experience of having an MRI scan. In the Derby tour match, he wore it anyway, reasoning he had to overcome his discomfort. He batted with impatience in the middle and then retired to the nets and batted some more.
At Old Trafford, the team that was supposed to be riven by Headingley was held together by the Smith glue, 211 drops of it that drowned out the ever diminishing jeering that had reverberated around Edgbaston. The batting support shouldn't be forgotten and nor should the contribution of the formidable bowling attack be overlooked. But this was Smith's finest hour since the ignominy of Cape Town. In the context, it may have been the finest hour - or hours; his innings lasted many - of his career. It was after all, the innings that secured the Ashes in England that follows the 18 months that stained Australian cricket with deep and dark infamy.
Stokes, after walking on water in the World Cup final and feeding the 5000 at Headingley, was unable to produce a third miracle in Manchester and there was no shame in that; he has done far more than most humans could accomplish.
Fourth Test, Old Trafford. Player of the Match: Steven Smith.
At Edgbaston, Smith could be seen advising Tim Paine on field settings. At Old Trafford, it was Stokes who gave an impassioned speech to England's players before they took to the field in the third innings. Both men are leaders and, at times, appear to take on the role of de facto captain. There may yet come a time for each when the title is formalised.
They have both been sidelined by bans and returned with increased, even insatiable, hunger; perhaps fuelled by the desire to make amends for their absence and an acute awareness of that which they almost lost. Their respective team-mates describe them as freaks, and insist they work harder and prepare more than anyone else.
One produced the defining innings of the series while the other produced a series of decisive innings.
Stokes will always have this summer, the summer he performed miracles, inspired a nation and won a World Cup.
But, no matter what may come at The Oval, this will forever be Smith's - and Australia's - Ashes.
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