The Legend of Headingley – 2019

In The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

It’s not supposed to happen. You don’t win Test matches after being bowled out for 67, at least not in the twenty first (or twentieth) century. You don’t chase down 359 in the final innings; it literally almost never happens.

But at Headingley in August 2019 it did happen. And it wasn’t just any old Test match (it was number 2357). England had to win in order to have a chance of regaining The Ashes although a draw (or tie) would have kept England’s hopes alive.

But this match was never going to be drawn. It was never going to be drawn after the first day when, after being put in by Joe Root, and despite lengthy rain interruptions, Australia were bowled out for 179. They lost eight wickets for 43 – as was pointed out at the time, a classic Headingley number; Bob Willis’s bowling figures in 1981. And it certainly wasn’t going to be a draw after the second day, when England were routed for 67 (“abject” – Willis). By close of play Australia were 283 ahead with four second innings wickets left; there were three whole days left, a draw was obviously out of the equation. So, er, who was going to win?

That England were not totally out of the match was down to their bowlers, and in particular to Ben Stokes who bowled a magnificent and incisive spell on the second afternoon to ensure that nobody was going to hang around too long with the adhesive Marnus Labushagne. Stokes, who dismissed Travis Head, Matthew Wade and Pat Cummins, finished with figures of three for 56 off 22.4 overs, and with an economy rate better than any England bowler except Stuart Broad in the first innings.

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And then the end of the third day. Well, everyone agreed that England had had a good third day. The best thing was that Root had made runs, was looking good and was not out overnight. Even Willis thought that an England win was a possibility. Most people thought the odds were somewhere between impossible and highly improbable. Critical would be the first hour and, in particular, the new ball, due after seven overs. But if the not out couple – Root and Stokes (two runs off 60 balls) – could survive till lunch, well, who knew what might happen.

We didn’t have to wait long. Root fell almost at once to Nathan Lyon. The day started in glorious sunshine but strange almost sepulchral silence from a capacity crowd. No runs came in the first five overs. But Jonny Bairstow, one Yorkshire man replacing another, got thing moving and that pair were still there at lunch: 238 for four.

After lunch though there was another of those apparently seismic shifts. Tim Paine’s go-to men, Lyon and Josh Hazlewood, applied pressure and England faltered. Bairstow edged to second slip, Jos Buttler was run out in a mix up with Stokes, and Chris Woakes was undone by some short stuff. Jofra Archer hung around but when he and Broad were out to successive balls it was 286 for nine (Stokes 61 off 174 balls). 73 needed – Stokes and Jack Leach would have to get them.

And they did. Well, Leach got one, the single that brought the scores level. But he played his part all right: Jack Leach, Ashes hero.

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It is hard to know where to begin with Stokes. It is almost as if he knew, right from the start of his innings, that England were going to win and that he was going to win it for them. His early self-denial was startling in its intensity. It was as though his first innings dismissal – a crass swipe at a ball that was virtually a wide – was endlessly replaying in his mind. 

Once he was joined by Leach there was only one way he could go. And he went. Eight sixes and eleven fours, mostly in that last, epic partnership. From a no-risk game it became an all-risk game. Paine, increasingly flummoxed, spread the field far and wide. Stokes was simply too smart for his eleven opponents. He kept taking them on, and winning, farming the strike and hitting whenever possible. The shot of the day? It’s really impossible to choose, but perhaps the incredible reverse slog sweep for six off Lyon.

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Yes Lyon, the best finger spinner in the world; Cummins, the world’s number one ranked bowler; Hazlewood, the best bowler in the match – he conceded 19 in an over near the end; James Pattinson, still firing down 90 mph deliveries at both batsmen. They had carried all before them in the series, like Dennis Lillee and Terry Alderman in 1981. Now on this crazy sunlit afternoon control eluded them.

A one-wicket victory in a tight series is always going to be special. Although one inevitably thinks of Headingley 1981, the more comparable match situations were Melbourne 1982-83 and Edgbaston 2005. But neither of those had an individual performance to rank with Stokes’ historic series and career defining innings. One man, against eleven desperadoes. Paine’s men more or less fell apart by the end. Yes, they were under pressure, but who was under more pressure? The Australians’ gormless use of the review system could have cost them The Ashes.

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And let’s not forget the Headingley crowd. Quiet to begin with, they loved this glorious unfolding spectacle. As early as halfway through the day, as David Gower put it, every ball was getting a standing ovation. Like Stokes, their hearts must often have been in their mouths as yet another shot sailed towards and then just over an outstretched fielder’s hands.

The Ashes are alive. The summer of cricket continues to dazzle. The crowds deserve it. Yes, the England players deserve it too; apart from the hapless openers, and Buttler, everyone contributed significantly to this win.

But, and unfortunately this is important, the administrators of the English game don’t deserve it. They are the lucky ones. They have fallen for the credo of their marketing men that money is all that matters and that the way to make money is T20 and especially the moronic 100. They are too blind to see that their best product is right in front of their eyes, and has been going (only) since 1877. Let’s hope the “mums and kids” – the target audience for the 100 – were able to work out what was happening yesterday afternoon. If the England and Wales Cricket Board have their way, they may not have many opportunities in the future. The ECB’s handing of the domestic first-class structure is an assault on the fundamentals of Test cricket.

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But this is not the time to carp. This is a time to celebrate a wonderful cricketer. Stokes’ 135 not out will be remembered forever by anyone who saw it, even on television. This magnificent cricketer, who has been through the whole gamut of emotions, on and off the field, in the last few years, is fit to rank with the game’s immortals.

Bill Ricquier

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