“One of the great days.”
Sky Sports Cricket relived the remarkable drama from the fourth day of the third Ashes Test at Headingley last summer as part of the Sky Easter Watchalong on Saturday.
- ‘One of the great days’: Ashes Watchalong
- ‘Incredible feeling’: World Cup Watchalong
We heard from the man himself, Ben Stokes, as well as captain Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, among others, but what was it like for one of our writers?
In the latest edition of Throwback Thursday, our weekly cricket feature which looks back on some memorable feats of years gone by, David Currie recalls his memories from that incredible day…
- Throwback Thursday: Ashes thriller at Old Trafford
- Throwback Thursday: Butch floors Aussies
Stokes at Headingley was simply staggering, a relentless and ridiculous display of batting. It was a superhuman effort from a man at the peak of his powers that summer.
Stokes had already taken our breath away with an incredible catch on the boundary to kick-off England’s World Cup-winning campaign, he was then their most consistent batsman for the tournament and his Herculean effort in the final ensured a Super Over success for the hosts.
But Headingley stands out among the rest.
Why? For sheer want of will. For the frankly unwinnable position in which he found himself. Because it was Australia and The Ashes. For the switch-hits, the ramps, the slog-sweeping that lit up the Test arena with a T20-style glow. Also, for the fact I was there.
Sometimes, as a sports writer, such drama as that which Stokes provided on that sunny August afternoon in Leeds can be a curse more so than a blessing, wreaking havoc on match reports that are expected to be filed on the whistle.
But, as luck would have it, I had been tasked with writing a colour feature from the Test that Sunday, one with a more forgiving deadline.
Stokes’ innings made it more and more impossible to stick diligently to that task and, though I ultimately managed to cobble something together, much of those mad final moments at Headingley I spent unhelpfully thumping my colleague Sam Drury on the shoulder as he, getting ever-more agitated, attempted to summarise the drama in his report.
I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t sit still. Nor did our position in the Headingley press box allow you to.
Positioned on the back row, to the right-hand side of the box, some of Stokes’ sixes swatted straight or smeared into the Western Terrace to our right – and his flirtations with the Australian fielders on the boundary – were obscured.
“As soon as you hit the ball, you know if it’s gone for six by a foot or if you’re going to be caught on the boundary half a foot inside the rope,” Stokes said on the Sky Easter Watchalong of the day’s play. “I don’t know why, but you just know.”
Stokes knew; I didn’t. You’d be up off your seat, firstly in awe of the shot – specifically his switch-hit slog-sweep off Nathan Lyon into the stands – and then desperately craning your neck around to try and see the result. Not that you’d need to; the fervent Headingley crowd were very forthcoming with spoilers.
I had no such problems staying still earlier in proceedings. I stood silently, nervously at the back of the commentary box for the first session.
England had reason to believe they could pull off an improbable run-chase of 359, despite having been bundled out for an embarrassing 67 in their first innings only two days earlier.
“It was one of those days where you wake up in the morning and think, ‘we have got a real chance to do something special’,” said skipper Root, whose fine, unbeaten 75 helped England close the previous day on 156-3 – 203 runs from a crucial win to keep the Ashes alive.
Stokes, meanwhile, had a very un-Stokes-like two runs from 50 balls at the start of proceedings.
Any early-morning optimism was soon quietened with the loss of the captain three balls into the sixth over of the day – six excruciating overs which saw England add only three runs to their score and Root two.
Root fell to a terrific, deflected catch at slip by David Warner off Lyon, in his opening over after James Pattinson and Josh Hazlewood had superbly set the tone, offering nothing to either batsmen to help get them away.
Lyon looked likely to be a major player in the day but, first, he would be swiftly hauled from the attack to make way for the second new ball, Australia sensing blood after that early opening.
Yet, the discipline the three-pronged seam attack of Pat Cummins, Pattinson and Hazlewood had shown in ripping through England in 27.5 overs on day two, and the latter two had operated with that morning, deserted them.
Bairstow, whose contribution to England’s win is oft-overlooked, and Stokes raced to a fifty stand, one greeted ferociously by the Yorkshire support, as they plundered 62 runs from the first 10 overs of the new nut.
England were 238-4 by lunch, when I finally allowed myself to move from my spot at the back of the commentary box – a spot I’d become so firmly entrenched for those first two hours of play, that marking where I’d been stood were two perfect size 11 imprints of worn carpet.
Highlights from Mark Butcher’s own Headingley heroics against Australia back in 2001 made for the perfect lunchtime fill, with optimism abound England could now pull this off.
Again, that bubble was quickly burst, with Bairstow perishing in the fourth over after the interval, Jos Buttler run out and Chris Woakes chipping one to short extra cover – all in quick succession.
Lyon was bowling beautifully at this stage. Having been brought back into the attack after the Australian seamers’ new ball wastefulness, he was regularly troubling Stokes’ outside edge as he targeted the rough patches outside his off stump.
Jofra Archer briefly had some fun at his expense, heaving back-to-back boundaries into the legside in one over, but a third try was one too many as he holed out in the deep.
Stuart Broad came and went two balls later. England still needed 73 runs to win; Australia needed just one wicket to retain the Ashes. And, well, you know the rest.
I’d taken my place in the press box by this point, optimistic of writing something around one of England’s greatest ever days, a plan that had been quickly shelved with the sudden clatter of wickets but one which I’d later revisit.
Later being the optimum word. For, as early as Stokes smashed Lyon for his first straight six of his extraordinary assault that was to follow, I firstly just wanted to watch.
I never truly believed England would win until Jack Leach scored that single. But that first six did awaken me to the fact that I was about to witness something special.
The reverse-slog-sweep into the stands a couple of overs later confirmed it.
Root recalled that moment in the dressing room: “I remember being sat in the dressing room with Broad on one side and Buttler on the other and when Jos turns round and says ‘this guy is a freak’, you know you’re witnessing something special.”
It was the likes of which I’d never seen before in the Test arena, let alone in such a tense run-chase, with one wicket remaining and the Ashes on the line. But the sheer arrogance of the shot was matched only by the exceptional execution of it. Stokes knew exactly what he was doing. He was in complete control.
With a couple of crisp swings of the bat, Stokes had already reduced the equation from 73 needed to less than 50. Australia were rattled.
“I thought [Australia captain] Tim Paine got it spot on until England were nine down,” said Sky Sports’ Nasser Hussain. “In that last hour and a half, he lost the plot. I thought he choked, to be honest; I thought Australia choked.”
Stokes sensed a sudden shift too. “You could just feel their tension,” he added. “You could just sense from their body language.
“Even Lyon, when he was bowling earlier, he always walks facing you backward to his mark. But he started walking with his back to the batters.”
Lyon’s tension would later manifest itself in that muffed run-out chance with Stokes within striking distance of victory, while a few more swift strikes to the arm of my colleague to my left would help relieve my own tension.
It still wasn’t done. Australia would rue earlier wasting their last DRS review as Lyon struck Stokes on the front pad with a ball that was said to be hitting the stumps. Another couple of jabs to my left.
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