Exhilarating agony of a great Test still makes beautiful sense
The heroic acts of Stokes, Archer and Smith during an enthralling Ashes series have provided a comforting sense of escapism from political chaos
The escapism of sport has never felt more vital than it has in this captivating Ashes series. Unlike our politics, it has inviolable laws, a time frame and an outcome. There are no secure hiding places in deceit – as Australia’s sandpaperers found out – and no escape from accountability.
All this was true long before 2016, but it feels doubly so now as we search for order in the midst of chaos. On the shortlist of things that still make sense, Ben Stokes’s Headingley miracle is up there with Ben Stokes’s role in the super-over World Cup finale. Cricket has somehow managed to provide two hugely unifying spectacles in an otherwise disastrous summer.
The centre cannot hold – but the middle order can. Certainly where Stokes is involved.
Which is why a digital traffic sign in Manchester announced this fourth Ashes Test as “Sir Ben Stokes versus Australia”. In two hits across two formats, Stokes has ascended by any sensible measure to greatness.
If five per cent of players belong in a super elite, only a thin slither of those special individuals could do what Stokes did in July and August. First, he made the difference between England winning and not winning a first world one-day-international title, then stopped them losing a home Ashes series from an impossible position with an innings described by some sages as the most momentous in Test history.
This electricity crackles around Test match No4. We have no right to expect more crazily unpredictable drama – but will hope for it anyway.
Stokes may have exhausted his superman repertoire and is entitled to a quiet one. But he will not see it that way. As Joe Root, the England captain, said: “He’s never going to shy away from any kind of challenge.”
The same is true of Steve Smith, described by Tim Paine, his captain, as “the greatest problem solver in Test cricket”. That he may be, but he is human, too, with a standard fight-or-flight mechanism, and must now face Jofra Archer’s short balls again, knowing he has been hit three times by England bowlers already in this series. Once on the helmet (at Edgbaston) and once each on the forearm and neck at Lord’s. The psychological barrier he will need to cross to deal with Archer’s fireballs is almost matched in scale by the need for technical adjustments in how he “picks” the sharply rising delivery.
The resumption of the Smitharcher battle is one “the whole world wants to see”, as Paine claimed. And there will be moments when the dread we felt at Lord’s returns to make us flinch.
With 14 wickets in this series, Stuart Broad has been eloquent with the ball. He was even more articulate on Monday in his description of the 2019 Ashes as an all-out battle of wills in which bowlers are rampaging in and doctors and medics are trotting in and out like the figures in a Swiss town hall clock.
In all the great team events of sport, none can surpass the intensity of a great Ashes series. The immortal 2005 contest could be felt in the bones here as England and Australia practised under leaden Manchester skies with the score one apiece with two Tests left. Fourteen years ago, cricket’s best rivalry felt like a distinctly summer spectacle. This one pushes deep into autumn: a consequence of another epiphany – England’s last-ball World Cup win.
The feeling carried across the Pennines from Leeds to Manchester is one of anticipation and gratitude, but also relief that a rivalry as old as emigration is still there to inspire and guide us.
The Ashes are a world that adds up, even when the story is barely believable, as it was in Leeds, where England’s fragility somehow morphed into an epic show of defiance, making folk heroes of Stokes and Jack Leach.
“Jack and Ben have been hounded a little bit,” Root said, not specifying whether all the extra attention was helpful or not.
Too often, too much is read into sport. But who could escape the deep human resonance of Stokes and Leach coming together with 73 runs needed, and each delivery – each run – torturing a nation that cricket is desperate to reclaim from the clutches of football and other modern obsessions?
As each ball probed the fine line between obituaries for English Test cricket and a fightback for the ages, the “summer of cricket” hinged on a player whose career might have been destroyed by a pavement brawl, but instead finds himself alongside Ian Botham and Freddie Flintoff in the ranks of untameable all-rounders.
If the World Cup was enthralling, these last two Tests have become the hottest ticket in the English sporting summer by virtue of Stokes’s redemption tale, Archer’s emergence as a fearsome quick bowler and sharp agent provocateur (“he’s had plenty of opinions, that’s for sure,” Paine said), and now by the return of the world’s best batsman, who has struck 378 runs at 126 in two matches. Australia also possess the most prolific bowler: the superbly talented Pat Cummins, who has been overshadowed by Stokes, but leads the way for both sides with 17 wickets.
This series has achieved the state of transcendence, where both sets of players are willing to walk through fire and the public can hardly wait to see the next instalment. “It’s great to see Test cricket in that light – and globally as well,” Root said. England’s leader is on-message with the “summer of cricket” riff, but even he looks shocked by how well it is going.
As cricket moves to shorter and shorter forms (I promised myself I would not mention the Hundred), the exhilarating agony of a great Test match in which players are thrown around by events turns out to be one of the enduring comforts of life.
Anything could happen next – again. But whatever does, it will be recognisable and have soul. It will make beautiful sense.
Cricket has managed to provide two unifying spectacles in an otherwise disastrous summer
Match-winners: Jofra Archer makes sure his aim is true in practice yesterday (above) and (right) a traffic sign in Manchester sums up Ben Stokes’ ascension to greatness