Unprecedented scenes, sweaty palms, butterflies fluttering in the stomach, and the continuous swallowing – it all existed during the Ashes 2019 at Headingley. A month ago in July, the world was consigned to a cliffhanger at the iconic Lord’s in the 2019 World Cup final. As that game hardly went beyond the list of unforgettable, the fans had to deal with another stunning set of events.
It also laid out the brilliance of the phenomenon that Ben Stokes turned into, shouldering the nation’s hopes all alone in another make or break situation after dictating terms at Lord’s. But what if that had gone south for England? As an Australian cricket fan, one would indeed lament all the missed opportunities and carelessness that left them spellbound. On the flip side, it hurts yet feels tempted to think what if Australia managed to grab even one of those with both hands in Leeds.
The moment or perhaps moments:
Make no mistake; the tourists were merely left to lick their wounds after a chastening one-wicket loss. With the dismissal of Stuart Broad by virtue of a pin-point yorker by James Pattinson, England’s dreams of reclaiming the urn stood shattered. With 72 more required to overhaul a target of 359 and nine down, there was no way even Stokes could pull that off unless Tim Paine and his men commit some unthinkable sequence of lapses.
And it happened. The departure of Broad gave Stokes the license to hit everything in his slot. He didn’t spare Nathan Lyon, Pattinson, Josh Hazlewood. Not even the number one Test bowler, Pat Cummins could dissuade the Kiwi-born from achieving his destiny. But as much as the mastery shimmered from his knock, it wasn’t without giving Australia a sniff. Of course, those which they failed to seize.
The first of those came when Stokes was batting on 116, having miscued a shot that sliced to the third man. A diving Marcus Harris couldn’t hold on to it. The next two significant blunders, including letting England off the hook went from unthinkable to entirely unlike non-Australian standards of fielding and mindset.
Firstly, Paine used up a desperate final review off the last delivery in the 124th over against Jack Leach. Even as both Paine and Cummins felt sure that the ball pitched outside the leg-stump, the skipper made the call to go ahead. The decision was without realizing that Australia would need the same review dearly in the very next over. But well, who did anyway?
Stokes’ pyrotechnics reduced the equation to only eight needed by the time next over began. On the other hand, Leach frustrated Australia by piling up the dots when he got the strike. Lyon commenced the next over and conceded a six off the third ball. The very next delivery saw Stokes playing a reverse-sweep only to find the fielder. However, the non-striker came halfway down the pitch. To Australia’s catastrophe, the bowler couldn’t collect a straight-forward throw, thereby handing the hosts a lifeline.
A slog sweep followed the succeeding delivery which Stokes couldn’t connect, thudding him on the pads. Replays showed that the ball straightened well enough to hit the middle stump. With no reviews left, Australia’s chances of coming back from the dead went down the drain. And so did Lyon’s odds of becoming their Steve Harmison as the centurion Stokes thrashed the fourth ball of the next over for a boundary, leaving the crowd at Headingley gasping for breath.
In retrospect, at specific points, Paine failed to prevent singles off the last delivery of an over that enabled Stokes to retain the strike for the next. Had the Aussie skipper blocked those, he would have had more chances to bowl to Leach instead.
Australia sieze at least one of the chances to dismiss either Stokes or Leach that confirms their retention of the urn in the third Test itself. More so, if Paine decided not to take the review against Leach and instead opt for it in the next over, that would have been the perfect mirror image of what transpired 14 years ago in Edgbaston.
The confirmation of the ball clipping the middle stump would have Stokes’ and Englishmen’s shoulders entirely crestfallen after pulling themselves from the first innings dump. Perhaps, the World Cup win headlined by the all-rounder could have meant nothing to him after that loss. That also likely may have resulted in Lyon consoling a distraught Stokes similar to Freddie Flintoff comforting Brett Lee in 2005.
Accolades galore for Tim Paine and Co. following a nail-biting victory over England. With Steve Smith back in the side for the fourth Test in Manchester, Australia would also go on to win that and losing the last due to excess fatigue. At The Oval, even after losing, the Australians take arms on shoulders parade, victorious by 3-1 scoreline. The disastrous home summer is forgiven and forgotten as Paine scripts a brand new chapter in the history of Australian cricket, going where even the likes of Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke hadn’t.
Not only he makes the Baggy Greens retain the urn, but also becomes the first Aussie captain since Steve Waugh in 2001 to win the series in England, including a triumphant Test without the one-person wrecking crew, Steve Smith. The conversation about dropping Paine from the side and the potential candidate to take over as captain is put to rest indefinitely.
As for England, they join the list of teams who undergo a tough time after winning the World Cup. Joe Root faces the axe as the Test captain of the English side as a result of being the first since Michael Atherton and Naseer Hussain to lose an Ashes series on home soil. Ben Stokes becomes the 81st captain of the English Test outfit due to his extraordinary display in all the departments in five Tests.