England completed one of the biggest comebacks in Ashes history to beat Australia in the third Test by one wicket with Ben Stokes scoring 135 not out to help level the series at 1-1
Headingley 1981 was a foregone conclusion compared with this. So, too, the World Cup final in July, as Ian Bothams incredible exploits of 38 years ago have been matched, maybe surpassed. But on a day like this who cares about rankings anyway? Ben Stokes produced the innings of a lifetime to snatch a one-wicket victory, which keeps the Ashes alive and the game alive, while threatening to cause multiple heart failures among those lucky enough to witness this contest.
A few figures: England, bowled out for 67 in the first innings, achieved their highest-ever winning total by scoring 362 for nine at this unlikely theatre of dreams on the other side of the Pennines from Old Trafford. The last-wicket partnership somehow unbroken between Jack Leach and Stokes was worth 76. Stokes finished, most definitely unbeaten, on 135, which included eight sixes; he had 61 when Leach made his way to the crease.
But beyond the figures was astounding melodrama and we have to start near the end. It defied belief that England had reached 351 for nine when the Australia captain, Tim Paine who, like his counterpart Kim Hughes all those years ago, had every reason to believe that this match had already been decided tossed the ball to Nathan Lyon. Stokes was on strike with eight runs needed for victory. He cut the first two deliveries to distant fielders and declined to run, following the pattern of what was already a stunning partnership.
The third ball from Lyon was fuller and Stokes swung. He did not quite time it perfectly but he does not have to. At long-off Marnus Labuschagne circled; at the bowlers end Lyon squinted towards the boundary, urging the ball to stay in play. By a metre or so it cleared the rope. For the first time in the match England were rock- solid favourites to win. One run would be sufficient for a tie, two for victory.
Now the field came in. This must have felt claustrophobic for Stokes. For the previous hour the vast majority of the fielders had been stationed on the boundary when he was on strike. The next ball was cut by Stokes straight to one of the fielders now close enough to save the single. No matter; there were two deliveries left and after his recent pyrotechnics surely Stokes would now deliver the final blow.
Lyon fired in the next delivery and Stokes cut again. Leach started scrambling a run; Stokes sent him back but it was clear as the throw from Pat Cummins headed towards Lyon that Englands valiant No 11 would be stranded. Home hearts sank until Lyon fumbled the ball, and the images of Australias 1999 World Cup semi-final against South Africa flashed past.
One ball remained and Stokes decided to explore the legside this time. He slog-swept but missed. Lyons appeal was prolonged, suggesting an odd mix of desperation and confidence. Umpire Joel Wilsons finger failed to appear but the realisation that the Australians were unable to ask for a review did come to light. They had wasted their last review against Leach in the previous over from Cummins (incidentally the solitary area in which England have been consistently superior in this series is in their use of DRS). The subsequent replay demonstrated that Stokes would have been out if it had been possible to review the decision.
After that it was relatively plain sailing. Unusually, Leach was left on strike as Cummins ran in at the start of the next over. He ducked the first ball, defended the second and the third saw the ball trickle from his bat on the legside. Leachs first run in the partnership had levelled the scores. In came Cummins again; Stokes crashed the ball to the cover boundary and the most amazing Test match of all was over.
There were one or two dramas before those final 10 deliveries. Even the first four overs of the day, which were all maidens, somehow added to the tension. The first single by Root was cheered to the skies and then Englands captain departed, superbly caught by David Warner off the inside edge and pad off the bowling of Lyon as he advanced down the pitch.
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