This was written the day after Ben Stokes’ epochal innings at Headingley in August 2019. There are times, and this was one, when you have to get something down quickly, while you’re still basking in the afterglow of seeing something you’ll probably never see the like of again.
With other, less glorious, sporting experiences, the passage of time can lead you to think differently about things. To start thinking that they weren’t quite as good as they seemed at the time. And sometimes you are right to think this.
This, though, was different. It will never be less extraordinary, or less significant, than it was when it happened.
With one thing and another – the demands of a job which doesn’t allow me to watch cricket, mainly – unless I’m at a game these days, opportunities to sit down and watch Test cricket, in all its compelling glory, for hour upon hour, are relatively rare. On Saturday afternoon, and again yesterday, I was able to do so. I was reminded of my childhood – days of Soul Limbo, and Peter West, and Jim Laker and Richie, curtains drawn against the occasional sun, my Mum trying to drag me away from the television. ‘Just one more over’ was what I would always say; ten overs later I was still there. And, because my parents had paid for their television licence, I could do so without having to mute the adverts. Sky was just what I saw when I went outside with a bat and a tennis ball during the lunch interval.
In modern parlance this sounds slightly sad. I did go out (usually, in the summer, anyway, it was to play cricket); I had friends (mostly they also liked cricket); I had other interests (though never anything as intense as cricket, really) and days such as those prepared me for days such as this. You name it, I saw it – Richards and Gavaskar at The Oval, early Gower, beautiful and unique, Botham when he could swing the ball (which always leads me to kick back when people get too effusive about Jimmy A), the West Indies attack in all its terrifying potency, even innings – like Javed Miandad’s 260 at The Oval in 1987 – which, for all their shimmering greatness, have been lost in the mists of time.
In July 1981 I was recovering at home from a major operation (we won’t go into the details here; they are unpleasant). This meant that although school hadn’t quite broken up, I was in front of the TV when England found themselves 135 for 6 at the old, open, grey Headingley, a very different ground to the modern sun-drenched stadium which was the stage for yesterday’s heroics. Yes, I saw Botham, and Willis, and the catches by Gatting and Graham Dilley, and all that. Start to finish. I even scored it, although, in all the excitement. my scoring skills let me down and the sheet didn’t add up right.
38 years after, on a hot Devon afternoon, I find people are asking how what Botham did then compares with what Ben Stokes has just done. As I reply I start to feel like some ageing eminence grise of cricket-watching, but I am nothing of the sort. I am 53 years old and I have spent a very large part of my life watching cricket. That is all.
As always with cross-era comparions, little is gained; they were different innings, played at different times, in different circumstances. One began and continued as a rage against the dying light of a seemingly hopeless situation; the other was a cultivated response to the possibility of victory that was at least plausible, if highly improbable. And there are other, more worthy comparisons with Stokes; Lara at Bridgetown, 1999, stands out as an example of genius bending a game to its will with the same result as we have just seen.
Two things: the first is the straightness of Stokes’s bat, and the dead weight position of his head as he defends again and again against Lyon on Saturday evening, and again on Sunday morning. Even though it is hot, as the Yorkshire autumn approaches the Saturday shadows are beginning to lengthen, but, even watching on television, you can feel the strength of his determination not to do anything rash. Unlike many another contemporary English batsman he has faith in his defensive technique and his strength of will. You sense that he feels that in time, with the right support, the opportunity to cash in will come, though he cannot know how spectacularly it will happen. The second thing to say is that I felt a really strange sense of inevitability from around forty runs out. Unless Jack Leach was dismissed, England were going to win.
In retrospect, that feels ridiculous. But there was – and increasingly is – a sense of the ridiculous about the way in which Stokes bats, of the impossible being not just possible, but certain. And here, the comparison with Botham has its time again, because this is the product of ferocious competitive will and iron self-belief, the like of which English cricket hasn’t seen since Botham.
Stokes doesn’t feel like a genius in the way that Lara did, but then genius is more readily ascribed to elegance than to the kind of raw power and ingenuity in which Stokes specializes. But what is genius if it is not the ability to do things which are way beyond the capacity of people who, by most people’s standards, are incredibly good at what they do? Could Joe Root have done that? No. Could Jos Buttler have done that? Well, perhaps, and he now has something to aim for, even if such a conjunction of circumstances is hardly likely to ever come his way.
For all his innate ability to spin the ball away from the right-hander, Jack Leach is nobody’s idea of a genius. But when I spoke to him in Taunton a few years ago after he’d taken some important, game-sealing wickets under the sort of pressure which makes lesser players wilt, I was impressed by the coolness and certainty of his responses. His self-possession yesterday came as no surprise, and, in a way as understated as his character, he has also written his name in English cricket’s lengthy, dusty, somewhat dog-eared, but voluminous history books.
I have seen a lot of cricket, but I haven’t seen everything, so it is best not to get carried away at times like this. However, I can say with absolute certainty that this was the most skilful, multi-dimensional and outrageously courageous innings I have ever seen played by an England batsman. After what happened at Lord’s in July it was never a genuine danger, but it is now certain that Ben Stokes will never be remembered for being hit for four consecutive sixes in his first World final, or for punching someone on the streets of Bristol. He will be remembered for this, and for many unknown deeds that are yet to come.
Like most professional sportsmen, Stokes and Leach are culturally conditioned always to look forward, and never, at least until they retire, to look back. But they, and those of us who were fortunate enough to see what they did yesterday, especially those who were there, will never forget it.
Different Shades of Green, 26th August 2019