Sunday 24th May 2015 and we were treated to a batting display which would not look out of place alongside some of the iconic attacking innings of a Botham or a Flintoff.
England had conceded a first innings of 134 against New Zealand. Second time round they were struggling at 74-3 with captain, Alistair Cook, playing one of the “book-in for bed and breakfast” innings. Joe Root played the ideal innings to drag England back into it with a three-hour 84. This took the home side to 232-4 and only 98 ahead. In walked Ben Stokes.
For years Stokes had been touted as ‘a contender’ as he made his way in the game at Durham. Controversy on a Lions tour saw him sent home for something he admitted was his own stupidity. Proudly hailed as a successor to Botham and Flintoff, Stokes has represented England at u19 and Lions level. He burst onto the international scene with a sensational Ashes hundred in Perth in a side which eventually lost 0-5. He was the only guiding light from an awful tour, and it was a testament to his belief and courage he was able to block out whatever else was going on around him and play with such determination and freedom.
It was a pivotal moment in the test as Stokes-circa2014 was a shadow of the potential many believed he had. England had Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali to come but in order to set the tourists a challenging total, Stokes needed to stick around with his captain.
What followed was some of the most riveting cricket you’ll ever see. Almost single-handedly Stokes turned the game in England’s favour. He was only at the wicket for 109 minutes, facing 92 balls yet his century will live long in the memory. Cook, at the other end, was 98 not out when Stokes came in and when he left the captain had only progressed to 122. But Cook soon sensed he was part of the watching audience and his place was best spent at the other end.
Stokes first job was to get his skipper to his 27th century. It took him ten balls to get off the mark, which when you look at his final stats makes what followed, even more remarkable. He hit his first boundary off his twelfth ball when he was a little loose with a drive off Henry past third slip. Next ball he was more authoritative as he crunched a drive on the up through the covers for another boundary. The crowd were now looking up from their sandwiches. Next ball and Stokes was in full flow as he threw his hands through the line of the ball and it flew away for a third successive four. Now the crowd was into this.
Next over from Craig saw Stokes sweep another boundary and he was now on a run-a-ball 17 not out. His fifth followed in Craig’s next over when the bowler pitched a little too short and Stokes crashed him through the covers. Talking of covers, on they came as the players took an early tea. If the crowd were worried their entertainment had been curtailed by regulations, they were soon reassured as this was merely a comfort break to allow them to enjoy the main event of the afternoon.
New Zealand took the new ball as soon as it was due after tea and Southee and Henry looked to make inroads. Cook drove Henry for four to take him to 108. Stokes was sitting on 29 having knocked the ball around for ones and twos. Southee’s second over with the new cherry saw Stokes move up another gear. First ball was punched backward of square for four. After leaving the next ball alone he timed the third ball perfectly through mid-off for another boundary. The fourth ball also made the rope when Stokes guided it past point. The crowd were now in raptures as Stokes was 42 not out off 50 balls with 8 fours.
Brendan McCullum was forced into a change bringing Trent Boult on but his first ball to Stokes was slightly wide of off stump and the Durham all-rounder slapped it hard over backward point. It was his ninth four and probably the best of the lot.
During the winter Stokes had been employed at number seven in the batting order. Interim coach, Paul Farbrace had decided to move him up to six and been rewarded with 92 from him in the first innings. This time, though, Stokes meant business. He tucked a Boult delivery through square leg for the two runs he needed to bring up his second half-century of the match, off just 57 balls.
To digress a little as I did in moment number two, I had been working on a path in our back garden and had come in to take a break and have a cup of tea during the tea break. What followed after that had me transfixed in a way which reminded me of all those years ago. I was a thirteen year old sat watching cricket on my own in the house on a Saturday afternoon when Ian Botham strode to the crease at Old Trafford. I had a wonderful time watching this man single-handedly taking on the opposition and turning a game from disaster to ultimate victory. This is the stuff of dreams.
Stokes took boundaries off successive Boult overs to move towards 60 and then in Southee’s twenty-third over he really stepped on the gas. Fourth ball of the over and Southee dug one in a bit shorter angled at the batsman and Stokes went right after it pulling it into the Tavern. It sailed over long leg and had the crowd on their feet. Next ball the bowler, as Lillee had done all those years ago, again dug it in and again suffered the same treatment down towards the Tavern. Two sixes in successive balls and the boy was on fire. Next ball and once again Southee persisted with the short stuff and Stokes was not a man to lie down, but this one only went for four. Sixteen off the last three balls of the over and our man was now 77 not out off 71 balls. Cook prodded away at the other end for Boult’s over as if he too was drooling at the prospect of Stokes v Southee- the sequel.
Sure enough on came New Zealand’s premier bowler and again it was back of a length and once again Stokes was not shy in coming forward and dispatched this through midwicket for another boundary, his thirteenth. Dot ball and then two leg-byes followed before Southee went short yet again and Stokes whacked it straight over midwicket into the Mound Stand. Finally Southee remembered he was allowed to pitch the ball up but Stokes was ready for him drove it straight back past the bowler for another four. Seventeen off the over and Stokes was again into the nineties.
Cook and Stokes traded singles off Boult’s over before Matt Henry replaced the shell-shocked Southee at the Nursery End. The second ball Stokes faced he smashed it straight down the ground for four to take him to 99. Stokes turned down Cook’s invitation for a single off the next ball but then Stokes hit the next one through midwicket to take him to a memorable hundred.
As with Botham in ’81, or ‘82 or ‘86/87 or Flintoff ’05, it was easy to get caught up in the moment and forget to take a breath and understand what you were watching. Stokes 85 ball hundred was the fastest test century at Lord’s beating Mohammad Azharuddin’s 87-ball effort. Oh how the members must love to be rid of that one!
It was the second fastest ever for England in tests (in matches where balls-faced data was recorded), with Gilbert Jessop’s 76-ball ton in 1902 standing tall. The last man to score a century batting at number six in the second innings of a test at Lord’s was Gary Sobers back in 1966.
England had scored 19 runs off 13 overs of the second new ball with Stokes scoring 71 of those. During their 132-run partnership, Cook scored just 24 off 67 balls as Stokes blazed at the other end.
Matt Craig was brought back into the attack as McCullum must’ve struggled to find volunteers and in his second over of the new spell he got Stokes to top-edge a sweep to slip. 101 off 92 balls in 109 minutes with 15 fours and 3 sixes. It was a memorable, stunning innings and England were now 230 ahead and the tourists were beginning to worry about chasing much more than about 250.
Cook was eventually out for a monumental nine hour stay for 162 as England posted 478 to set New Zealand 345 to win. They didn’t manage it, with Stokes again in the headlines taking two in two, including the New Zealand captain first ball.
Comparisons with players gone-by are always tricky and should rarely be attempted. But what Stokes achieved in that heady weekend in May went a long way towards restoring some faith in the English game for the summer ahead.
There are always moments of “can you remember where you were when….” In cricket and Stokes Sunday afternoon blitz is something I will always cherish.