26 February 2024

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Ben Stokes

Ben Stokes, and an unexpected miracle

Let us suppose there are three kinds of miracles.

Miracles are mentioned in religious scriptures. Everyday miracles occur, such as a train coming just as you arrive at the platform. Then there are the miracles that happen on sporting fields, which are neither divine nor fortunate coincidence, but occupy this contradictory gray region of happening right in front of you while appearing to be from another universe. Moments when a single guy, say, Ben Stokes, stares fate in the eyes and asks it to dance.

However, miracles do not always turn out to be miracles. The crying deity sculptures are simply condensation in a poorly insulated room. The train you board is heading east when you intended to travel west. And one of England’s most astonishing Ashes innings becomes a footnote in a comfortable Australian triumph.

There was a time when you thought you were watching another Stokes Marvel. There’s no shame in admitting it. There was all the wonder we’d seen previously at Lord’s: the inner strength from the 2019 World Cup final on this exact field, the bold striking of Headingley 2019 against this opponent, and the ruthlessness of the T20 World Cup final in 2022.

All three of those game-winning performances occurred on Sundays, just like this one. Stokes saw an opportunity to be that higher power on day five of this second Test, with God resting on the seventh. This time, it was for nothing.

England is currently 2-0 down in the Ashes, Stokes struck a remarkable 155, and they will be viewed as separate incidents as time passes. And, thanks to Stokes, this Test felt like it was split into two distinct parts.

One day consisted of four days of play, followed by 21 overs at the start of day five and 9.2 overs at the end. Many bouncers were bowled. A lot of pull shots were attempted, but the majority of them were unsuccessful. Mitchell Starc made a catch that he later dropped. Things happened, decisions were made, things were spoken, and articles were published.

The other was this whirling black hole of 21 overs sandwiched between those two Sunday passages, with England’s captain at its heart, bending everything that came before it back on itself nearly to breaking point, as those watching were dragged into Stokes’ world.

His trigger for this period of the maelstrom was different from the other three. Lord’s ’19, Headingley ’19, and MCG ’22 were extensions of an allrounder’s mindset; always wanting to contribute, mixed with a personal dose of not wanting to let his mates down. And while those aspects were present here, this “miracle” carried a stench of Old Testament fury.

You might argue Jonny Bairstow’s stumping was the spark for the gasoline, but Ben Stokes is both the spark and the gasoline, and he has been hesitant to mix the two since becoming captain. Until Alex Carey’s under-armor provided him a good enough excuse. As a result, with him on 62 off 126, they were reintroduced.

Ben Stokes

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Before the sixes, those seemingly never-ending sixes showering hellfire on the Tavern and Mound Stand – not to mention the one from Ben Stokes the mortal the night before – there were as many fours as horsemen warning of approaching catastrophe. Cameron Green was following orders to go short, but none of the three men on the fence could prevent Stokes from puncturing midwicket or flipping the fast over the corner. Green returned for his next over with a broader line. He returned to the leg-side barrier, this time passing through Josh Hazlewood.

Ben Stokes Powerful Hitting

Only then did the sixes appear. Oh my goodness, the sixes! Cheers, and a version of “same old Aussies, always cheating” greeted each boundary by this point. A day at Lord’s is six times cheaper while producing six times the noise.

Green was taken for three consecutive goals, sending him into the stands at square leg with his back to the pavilion. The third, which was so flat it threatened to punch a hole all the way to Paddington Station, little over a mile away, whisked him away to the 13th century from 142 deliveries.

There was no rejoicing, as there had been in Headingley. At the very least, from him.

Stuart Broad stepped forward, punching both hands in the air as he continued to play the role of the one who threatened a reckoning. His innings – if you can call them that considering that the most memorable parts came when he wasn’t actually facing up – were comparable to a preacher at Speaker’s Corner wishing all sinners evil. He enticed close-in fielders with dramatic acts of remaining in his crease, and continuously reminded Carey of the villainy of Ashes. The quick-turned-troll knows exactly how that feels.

Only through Broad’s histrionics did you realise the scope of Stokes’ focus. And it was only in retrospect that you realised there was a reason he protested the Bairstow stumping with only a smidgeon of dissatisfaction. “I didn’t want to get myself sidetracked by something that I couldn’t change,” Stokes later explained.

More sixes were on the way. Second ball after lunch, Hazlewood was hammered down the ground, then twice in three balls two overs later. Two came off successive Mitchell Starc deliveries after the left-arm was reintroduced, retaliation for three raps on the toes earlier in the day, one of which was ruled LBW but reversed on review in the seventh over when Stokes had 39. All swings were calculated, including the unintentional scuff on 114 that Steven Smith couldn’t claim, and only to the leg side while facing the quicks from the Nursery End.

The Lord’s hill, as well as the wind blowing towards the Tavern and Mound Stands, reduced the risk. According to CricViz, he scored 75 runs for no losses from 94 pitches pitched shorter than 10 metres in his first and second innings. The remaining batters in this match combined for 241 off 491 with 16 strikeouts.

There were other moments of calm among the chaos. Because he only trusted Broad to face two or three balls per over in the bumper bombardment, he bunted for singles to give him the strike. When necessary, blocks were used.

“It just felt a lot more difficult to really take the attack and try to hit the boundaries or sixes at the other end,” Stokes remarked later. “Just because the slope was against me and I felt it was a lot more difficult for me to play the pull shot from that end [batting at the Nursery End].”

Things began to change after the ninth and last six. Pat Cummins gathered his startled bowlers and removed the haze from their eyes before the 67th over. Wide yorkers and better-directed short deliveries turned those heaves into bunts, and those bunts into blocks. Stokes was gradually dragged back to the mortal realm.

He failed to score on 22 of his final 29 pitches and was limited to only eight runs on foot. An attempt to rally against the tightening shackles resulted in a flail of hands and a looped catch to backward point, which Carey took with visible trepidation.

Australian relief pierced English gasps. In the view of the Australians, a saviour is now a defeated demon. The tumble back to reality was complete as Cummins patted Stokes on the back as the England skipper made his way back. The 9.2 overs required to remove the remaining three wickets were meaningless. The game ended with Ben Stokes’ finish.

Ben Stokes

As an innings and a passage, it will not be towards the top of Ben Stokes’ legend, but it will be evident to the man himself and those who were present. With a return to Headingley just three days away, it will be used to feed the remaining optimism in a squad that needs to win three in a row. Stokes is already overburdened.

Returning to the actual world raises a number of problems

Some are rhetorical in nature. For example, “how many miracles does one international team need?” The beauty is that we all benefit from seeing somebody like Stokes explore the farthest edges of the spectrum where genius meets tenacity that the rest of us would never dare to think of. Even with only 20 or so overs. Even if it is in vain.

The more pressing questions will be addressed in the next week. For example, will England’s best chance of winning the Ashes since 2015 be over as soon as possible? And why does a team built in Stokes’ image, given all the tools they need to succeed by their captain, yet require him as a saviour?

Finally, there is a question that can only be answered once the previous one has been answered. That is if that ever happens. How many more “miracles” can Ben Stokes perform? Because this one has been squandered through no fault of his own.