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 Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport / Fourth Specsavers Ashes Test -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.