No matter how far Australia got ahead, this game was never going to be over while Stokes was involved. He came out in Saturday’s lengthening shadows and blocked his way to stumps. He continued on Sunday, permitting three singles from his first 69 balls before Joe Root was out. Aside from anything else, it looked like a bloody-minded rebuttal to the accusation that England were victims of their one-day cricket mentality, and couldn’t play proper Test cricket. Proper this.
The transition from defence to attack came with the new ball and Jonny Bairstow. The ball was expected to be a gift to Australia. It wasn’t. Stokes skied a pull over midwicket and his good fortune unlocked something. He began hitting Josh Hazlewood through the line rather than bunting the ball down. Bairstow’s cover-driven boundary, the first authentic attacking stroke of the morning, started a brief party, the batsmen knocking up 62 runs from the new ball’s first 10 overs. Leg-byes were scampered, wides flew to the rope, James Pattinson was on and quickly off. Tim Paine gave Marnus Labuschagne the last over before lunch, perhaps in hope of magical thinking, given the game Labuschagne had had.
Magical thinking follows Stokes like some sort of angel. Surely Shane Warne was the last cricketer who was both the best and the luckiest, and believed that one was connected to the other. Stokes remaining a free man after what he did at Bristol two years ago was a whisper from blind fate, and he deserves credit for listening. What gods there are smiled on him outrageously in the World Cup final, and no less beneficently here. He played and missed, he copped one on the helmet, his edges flew into grassland, he nicked Lyon through the slips, and he kept on believing that fate was his special personal ally.
After lunch, he lost five partners and was down to one last card, the unpromising figure of Jack Leach. England’s spinner had played a nugatory role in the game, but a month ago he was a Test centurion against Ireland. England’s final pair needed a mere 73 to win.
Stokes, having proven himself in every dimension a Test cricketer, switched to white-ball mode, lifting Lyon for a straight six. That number again: 67 to win.
With a replacement bat, Stokes sliced Pattinson into the sky, but it fell safely. He was hitting more or less everything in the air by this point, but was placing it with the precision of Tiger Woods on the 16th at Augusta. Hazlewood is a tall man, but Stokes lofted a pitching-wedge a centimetre over him for six. England 300, and 56 to win.
Lyon came back and bowled, wait for it, a near-wide. Pressure! What next? Oh, another Stokes six – with a reverse sweep. His stolen singles to stay on strike had the crowd singing as if they had already won. In Stokes they trusted, now and forever.
Paine brought back Patrick Cummins from the Kirkstall Lane End. Hazlewood loosened up on the long-off boundary. Way up the other end, Stokes ramp-scooped Cummins over the rope. Another purloined double, and 38 to win. Proper Test cricket, meet proper white-ball cricket.
A pulled four off Hazlewood’s first ball back brought up Stokes’s hundred, and nobody noticed. Next ball, down on one knee, six over backward square. Then another over midwicket. What we were seeing had gone through both real and surreal, through some portal. He got another two of Hazlewood’s fourth ball and England needed 19 to win, the precise number Hazlewood had just conceded in his comeback over. The partnership was 54. Leach had faced 10 balls and scored no runs. Make that 11 balls when Hazlewood’s attempted yorker missed.
Were we still here? Paine now gave the ball not to Cummins but to Lyon. Paine thought he had Stokes next ball off a reverse sweep, but not really. Everyone else thought he had him next ball, caught by Warner at slip, but that was only a kick out of the rough.
All right, Cummins again, this time uphill. Stokes skewed the first delivery to third man, where it landed all but in the hands of Marcus Harris, who minutes before had been signing autographs. Stokes slogged the next and it landed all but in the hands of Warner on the mid-wicket rope. Another swipe straight past Cummins ran down the hill, and England, all of a sudden, needed nine to win.
A single exposed Leach for two balls. Stokes was on his haunches by the umpire. Cummins bounced it over Leach, then clipped his heels, with which Paine threw away a review, not for the first time, but this one would cost the Ashes.
Back to Stokes. And Lyon. Two fours would do it. Stokes went for six, placing it over Labuschagne at long-off. He then tried to win the match with a cut through point, but Usman Khawaja threw his shaking body in the ball’s path.
Everyone was shaking. And then, as if there had not been enough Moments, came the Moment (before the Moment, before the Moment…). Stokes reverse-swept to backward point where Cummins fielded. Leach ran, Stokes didn’t. Stokes said later that Leach got so close to him that they could have had a conversation, and the conversation would have been about how Stokes had just told Leach not to take any panicky runs. When Leach turned and started his run back to the non-striker’s end, Stokes sank to his haunches, thinking of what might have been. Paine and Warner began running towards Lyon to celebrate, not the first time the Australians went off too soon.
Cummins’s throw to Lyon was tentative and wide, but still arrived in plenty of time, which, conveniently for all, stood still. Time was doing something different inside Lyon’s head. He fumbled. The Ashes: won, lost, won, lost again.
Now Lyon collected himself to bowl a perfect ball to Stokes, who swiped and missed and was hit in front. Joel Wilson, that other major influencer in this series, found himself in the spotlight. Joel’s concentration has not been the best. Joel, with a virtually unbroken record of ineptitude to preserve, duly gave Stokes not out. It was crashing into leg stump. For years, people will be saying that Ben Stokes’s greatest innings of all time should not have been a match-winner, because he was out lbw to Lyon. Tell it to the judge. Paine had burnt his last review when he thought it wouldn’t matter. If anyone finds it, they might put it in an urn.
England still had to score two runs, however, and Leach was in the firing line to Cummins. Leach shuffled one off his hip and found his first run where none existed.
Now Stokes. A long hop from Cummins, spanked through point, arms in the air. Who thought these Ashes could get any better?
And so to Old Trafford.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.