Ashes 3rd Test, Day Four: Utterly Ridiculous

Where do you even begin?  Perhaps with stating, no, insisting with the re-affirmation of what cricket fans have known all along – that Test cricket is the absolute pinnacle of the sport.  That the extraordinary World Cup win earlier this year had drama aplenty, but there is nothing, not in one day cricket, not in T20 cricket, and definitely not in Hundred cricket that can begin to match the slow burn intensity, the ever increasing pressure of a Test match.

The heart is pounding not in the final over, but an hour, two hours before the eventual finish.  The heart of the players, the heart of the spectators – in the ground, watching in England or Australia, listening to the radio.  Even more than that, it would have been for those watching in Chittagong or Colombo, for this is what this game can do.  Where every ball can bring a decisive swing, where all outcomes, even the vanishingly unlikely ones suddenly loom into view.

The endless sub-plots, a wicketkeeper as captain (and it is persistently understated just how hard a combination that is) losing the plot along with his team under the relentless pressure of a game already seemingly won beginning to get away from them.   The name Test cricket implies the scrutiny of not just ability, but the mental side of the game.  Keith Miller’s famous quote about real pressure being a Messerschmitt up his arse speaks to another world and a reminder of the realities outside a sporting contest, but it remains a truth that the tension of a Test match is unlike almost anything else, the gladiatorial individual contest in a team environment.

Stokes being an all rounder will always invite comparisons to the greats, and in England’s case Botham particularly.  He might be a different type of player in so many respects and ability wise it remains a pointless debate, but in the sense that he can seize an occasion, they are one of a kind.

There were of course plenty of moments where Australia could have won it.  Marcus Harris dropped Stokes in a manner eerily reminiscent of Simon Jones at Edgbaston in 2005, Cummins wasted Australia’s last review with a ludicrous lbw appeal that came back to bite them the following over when Stokes was given not out to Lyon with one showing three reds on DRS.  And right at the end, Australia missed a run out chance that was anything but difficult – the frantic moments of a game coming to a climax.

Ben Stokes’ hitting was beyond extraordinary.  The switch hit into the western terrace for six will live long in the memory, so bold the thinking, so exquisite the execution.  Length balls were disappearing over long off and deep midwicket, shorter ones smashed back past the bowler for four.  Jack Leach was the calmest man in the ground, defending his wicket and eventually scoring the priceless run to draw the scores level.

The earlier innings from Root and Denly gained in stature purely because of the outcome of the game, the problems in England’s cricket will be put aside for another day.  They shouldn’t be, for one freak innings from a player who knows how to seize the moment better than almost any does not alter the truth of the fragility of the English game.  The ECB will breathe a sigh of relief, that the focus will not be on them for another day.  But England will collapse again, the weaknesses Australia are exposing will come to the fore once more.  But just for today, just for now, it’s ok to bask in the brilliance of a player, and of the game of cricket.

It has to be said some have succumbed to the Greatest of All Time trap – emphasising why this remains such a stupid line to go down, because they’ve said it before.  And they’ve said it before so often.  It’s meaningless.  This was special, it doesn’t need to be ranked.

In the aftermath of the game, the Sky pundits talked about how this would inspire kids to play in the park, pretending to be Ben Stokes.  It hasn’t changed the invisibility of the sport, and if Stokes has a recognition factor, it’s because the World Cup final was available for all to see, while this final day remained a niche viewing opportunity.  Cricket needs exposure because a Ben Stokes can reach the parts hardly anyone can, as long as they see him.  This was something special, if only the nation truly had been gripped.

Somehow, ludicrously, this series is 1-1.  And now I need a lie down.