Days before Ben Stokes thrashed Pat Cummins to the Headingley cover boundary and raised both arms with a triumphant roar to claim the most remarkable of victories, Justin Langer had been in awe of England’s enforcer.
It wasn’t Stokes the fearless gladiator who had so captured the Australian coach but Stokes the relentless grafter.
Ben Stokes after his remarkable knock to win the third Ashes Test match at Headingley in August, 2019.Credit:Getty Images
After Australia had bowled England out for just 67 in the first innings of the third Test in 2019 to lead by 112 runs, it appeared a formality that Australia would bat England out of the game and eventually take a commanding 2-0 lead after three matches in the five Test series. As the holder of the Ashes, Australia would retain them.
But Stokes would not be denied. Thrown the ball at the Football Stand end where Leeds Rhinos rugby league fans also roar in summer, he began a spell which contained Australia enough for some history defining heroics.
Stokes ran in to bowl with Australia 3-85 in the 27th over and leading by almost 200. Speculation had already started about whether it was a match-winning lead given England’s insipid first innings against a quality Australian pace attack.
But Stokes sent down every delivery with equal parts grunt and determination.
He yorked a set Travis head on 25 to bowl the left-hander and by the time his skipper Joe Root decided Stokes could have a break, he had the figures of eight overs, four maidens, 1-12.
The break was short-lived. Jofra Archer replaced Stokes but, four balls into his spell, pulled up with cramp and hobbled off. Root threw the ball back to Stokes.
His spell was beyond 13 overs when a nasty bouncer surprised a set Matthew Wade and had him caught behind off the glove for 33. Instead of celebrating, Stokes sank to the ground in exhaustion.
He went to stumps on day two with 2-33 from 15.2 consecutive covers. So impressed was Root that he got Stokes to do it all again with the first over from the Football Stand end on day three.
Ben Stokes after taking the wicket of Matt Wade at Headingley in 2019.Credit:Getty
When Pat Cummins was caught in the gully, giving Stokes his third wicket, Australia were almost out and the lead was not historically impossible to chase. Stokes had completed 24.2 unbroken overs across two days for 3-56 with seven maidens.
There have been better figures taken in just about every Test match, but few claimed with such a telling impact.
It is the capacity of Stokes as a bowler to keep running in and challenging batsmen for over after over which could do as much to redefine the rapidly approaching Ashes series as his batting.
Vital though his batting will be to support Root and prop up an otherwise flaky top order, his bowling will enable all those around him to rise to the challenge.
Without Stokes, a seam attack of James Anderson, 39, Stuart Broad, 35, and the often injured speedster Mark Wood appeared destined for the casualty ward as much as the bowling crease.
As David Warner told the Herald and The Age, Australia’s plan was to keep bringing them back for spells and eventually wear them out.
“That’s when you cash in at the end of the day,” Warner said.
But with Stokes as their bulwark, England’s attack can bowl shorter and more intense spells.
It also means that England will have the freedom to play a specialist spinner with their four seamers, relieving Root of the extra burden of having to mix and match regularly with his useful off-spinners.
Ben Stokes after his Headingley miracle.Credit:Getty
This allows England to play Jack Leach, the left-arm finger spinner, to help keep things tight from one end, giving the pace bowlers a further chop out as they rotate from the other end.
And he did take a respectable 12 wickets against Australia in four Tests at an average of 26 during the 2019 tour.
Or there is even the licence to consider bringing in promising young leg-spinner Matt Parkinson, 25, who has not been chosen in the original Ashes squad but looks set to tour with the England Lions second XI as a back-up player.
But most of all, Stokes will ensure England have the confidence to do whatever it takes.
Because in that amazing innings of 135 not out, which took England to 9-362 and a one wicket victory when all seemed lost, Stokes followed up his superhuman bowling with a stoic, unbeaten two from his first 50 balls to stumps on the third day.
It had ticked up to 67 balls on the fourth morning before Stokes scored his third run.
His first 50 took 152 balls with six fours and a six. His second 50 came from 47 balls with two fours and four sixes. His last 35 took 20 balls with three fours and three sixes.
With Stokes both England and Australia know that anything’s possible.
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