OLIVER HOLT: Drama flies to Ben Stokes like a moth flying to light.

OLIVER HOLT: Drama flies to Ben Stokes like a moth flying to light. He laughed in the face of adversity after dropping Steve Smith and made victory happen for England in the final Ashes Test

  • Ben Stokes was England’s all-inspiring captain as they won the final Ashes Test
  • The England skipper dropped Steve Smith in what was a rare mishap for him
  • This Ashes series is one of the greatest Test series there has ever been

Lunch was taken late on the final day of the final test of this Ashes summer on account of morning rain. In the last over before the interval, Steve Smith, Australia’s best batsman, pushed forward to a ball from Moeen Ali.

The ball turned sharply and spat up so that it caught Smith’s glove. It ballooned high into the air over his left shoulder. Ben Stokes, the England captain, the soul of the side, was fielding at leg slip and he watched the ball fly and followed its trajectory.

It was a prodigious leap and he stretched out his right hand and felt the ball stick there. As Stokes came back to earth, Stuart Broad began to race in from fly slip to celebrate. 

Stokes steadied himself as he landed and looked as if he was about to throw the ball in the air. But his right hand collided with his right thigh in that moment and the ball escaped from his grasp and bounced apologetically towards short leg. Stokes knew what had happened. He almost smiled. Almost, but not quite.

Moeen looked at him questioningly. The umpire did not raise his finger. Half-heartedly, Stokes reviewed the decision. The slow motion replay gave room for doubt about whether he had had control of the ball. The umpire’s decision was correct.

Ben Stokes (middle right) was England’s all-inspiring leader as his side drew the Ashes series

Stokes (middle) was involved in a moment of controversy as he caught Steve Smith’s (left) edge off his gloves

Stokes (middle) watched the trajectory of Smith’s (left) looping shot and caught it with one-hand

Stokes did his best to look philosophical but he knew the potential significance of what he had done. Herschelle Gibbs began a celebration too early once and dropped Australia skipper Steve Waugh in 1999. ‘You just dropped the World Cup,’ Waugh told him.

There was the same feeling of dread about Stokes’ drop, too. Australia were cruising on 237-3, Smith was set on 39, Travis Head was playing well at the other end. When the disbelief about the dropped catch faded into grim acceptance, it was clear Australia were the favourites to win.

In those moments, and throughout the lunch interval and the downpour that followed soon afterwards, thoughts turned to the repercussions of defeat for England. It felt as if so much was at stake. A 3-1 series deficit would have been sobering. And it would have been damning.

There have been a surprising amount of England fans keen to traduce the aggressive, fearless, breathtakingly bold style of cricket the team has embraced under Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum, and which has come to be known as Bazball. There has been a sense of some more traditional, more pretentious, observers wanting it to fail.

Too frivilous, too casual, too rash, too adventurous: all words that were levelled at England’s captain and his players during periods of the first two Tests.

And if England had lost 3-1, if that Stokes’ drop had contributed to England blowing the chance to square this magical series, then the clamour to abandon Bazball would have grown, pressure would have been heaped on captain and coach and the giddy air of optimism that has enveloped the English game in recent months might have been lost.

But Stokes is the kind of captain who makes his own luck and laughs in the face of adversity. That is not just a cliché where he is concerned. Adversity brings the best out of him. Time and time again. He plays without fear. He captains without fear. Drama flies to him like a moth flying to light.

And so it seemed fitting that after that drop, Stokes rallied his team. He marshalled them brilliantly and did not stray from his instinct to attack. He stuck to his plans and he was rewarded with a spell where his bowlers took four wickets for 11 runs.

But then dropped the ball as he clattered his hand into his thigh on the cusp of celebrating his catch

Stokes (left) ruefully reviewed the decision but he knew not out was the correct decision

One of them was Smith’s, caught by Zak Crawley off the bowling of Chris Woakes, England’s man of the series. Stokes seemed to celebrate it with particular gusto. When that period was over and Australia were seven wickets down, England’s path to victory was clear.

So Australia retained the Ashes by dint of this 2-2 draw but for anyone who was at the Oval yesterday it did not feel as if Australia had won anything. England won a Test match but their triumph went beyond that. This was a triumph for Bazball, too. And it was a triumph for Test cricket.

This was one of the greatest Test series there has been, a series that swung wildly one way and then another, a series keenly fought, a series full of controversy, a series contested between contrasting styles, a series that delivered Hollywood storylines every day right until the magical last ball.

That was delivered, of course, by Broad. One of the greatest bowlers of all time, his last delivery in Test cricket snared the final Australia wicket and unleashed one of the loudest roars from the crowd that even this famous old ground has ever heard.

But Stokes recovered and inspired England to victory in the fifth Test as he rallied his players after dropping Smith

The day was also all about Stuart Broad (middle) as he retired from cricket following a stellar career

Broad (middle) left the pitch to standing ovation from all sides of the crowd at the Oval

And because this was one of the greatest series ever, it is worth remembering that Broad had hit his last ball in Test cricket for six the morning of the day before. And because this was the greatest series ever, his last victim on Sunday was Alex Carey, the wicketkeeper who had carried out the dubious stumping of Jonny Bairstow in the Second Test.

Some believe that that dismissal lit a fuse under England and turned the tide of this series and fuelled their comeback. But this England team does not need extra influences to spur it on.

That is why some of us are mystified when people sneer at the way this England team plays cricket. Sometimes, it goes wrong and then its detractors say it is rash but Bazball’s ethos is ‘no fear’ and so, whatever the timid may say, this England team keeps coming back for more.

Some cricket traditionalists seem unable to shake the idea it is vulgar but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if what we have witnessed this summer is vulgarity, then what a beautiful thing vulgarity is.

Broad bowled the final two wickets as England won the final Test in scintillating circumstances

Broad (left) was joined by his long-term England team-mate and friend Jimmy Anderson (right) after play

Whatever label you want to attach to it, the way England have played this summer, the way they have played even since Stokes and McCullum took the helm, has tasted like a nectar that can infuse the game with a rare kind of wonder for years to come.

Samuel Johnson said that ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ and as this final instalment of this magnificent series played out here on the south bank of the River Thames, it seemed particularly apposite. 

If you are tired of Bazball, you are tired of cricket. If you are tired of Bazball, you are tired of sport. And, yes, if you are tired of Bazball, then, frankly, you are tired of life, too, because the kind of sport we have witnessed over the past seven weeks has filled everyone who has seen it with joy and wonder.

That it felt for a brief time yesterday afternoon as though the philosophy’s hold on English cricket might be in doubt is a sobering thought. Now it just feels like a fleeting nightmare. Now, England seem like torch-bearers for a new era of Test cricket.

Sometimes England’s approach under Stokes (middle) goes wrong and then its detractors say it is rash but Bazball’s ethos is ‘no fear’

Stokes (left) has combined with England head coach Brendon McCullum (right) to capture the nations attention with their Test cricket approach

It did not just happen. Stokes made it happen. That is the kind of captain he is. And even if the day belonged to Broad, Moeen and Woakes, it belonged to Stokes, too. Because he is the architect of it all.

So here is one last vignette: as the clock turned to half past five with Australia on 294-7, Moeen bowled to Australia captain Pat Cummins and when Cummins tried to hoist the ball over long leg with an almighty sweep of his bat, he only succeeded in edging the ball on to his pad.

It looped up in the air towards leg slip. Stokes was there again. He had ground to make up but he reacted fast and reached out to take the catch in both hands. This time, he kept running and he did not let the ball go.

He ran like a man who does not have an injured knee, or who has ever felt pain in his life, sprinting in a semi-circle until he could resist no longer. And then he threw that ball into the air and watched it soar towards the sky.

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