The Ashes circus moved on to Leeds just four days after the drawn Test at Lord’s. England named an unchanged side, while Australia made two alterations from the team that finished the previous Test. They continued to rotate the bowling attack, with Peter Siddle rested and James Pattinson returning. Marcus Harris, who played six Tests during the winter while Cameron Bancroft was suspended, averaging 32.70, replaced the out-of-form Bancroft. He’d made an impressive 1515 runs at 56.11 in the last Australian domestic season, and had also hit 109 for Australia A against Sussex at Arundel on his first-class debut in England. As expected, Steve Smith was not ready to return to the side after his concussion.
After a delayed start for rain, England won the toss and chose to bowl. Harris didn’t last long, and Jofra Archer soon had him caught behind by Jonny Bairstow for 8; immediately after, the players came off for rain. Stuart Broad, who has dominated David Warner so far, was unable to remove him, but did get Usman Khawaja caught behind for 8 to leave the tourists on 25 for two. Soon after there was another interruption for rain, and then – despite the floodlights being on – the players were taken off for bad light. By tea, just 18 overs had been bowled, and Australia had reached 54 for two.
In the 13 overs after the break, Warner and Marnus Labuschagne took full advantage of some fairly ordinary bowling from Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes, racing along at four or five an over in overcast conditions that should have favoured the bowlers. Joe Root turned back to his openers to stop the flow, and immediately Archer had Warner caught behind for 61, and the following over Broad bowled Travis Head for a duck with an unplayable delivery: 136 for two had become 138 for four, and when Matthew Wade played on for nought, Australia had slumped to 139 for five.
The momentum had completely shifted to England, and Archer was at the heart of it all. After Woakes had removed Tim Paine, he then had both Pattinson and Pat Cummins caught to complete his maiden five-wicket haul. It’s safe to say, it will not be his last. Stokes finally trapped Labuschagne in front for 74 – he’d proved a more than useful replacement for Smith. Archer then had Nathan Lyon LBW and Australia were all out by the end of the day for just 179 in 52.1 overs, Archer’s figures were six for 45.
‘You’ve got to play with discipline…[and] do the hard work in the morning,’ said Michael Vaughan of the challenge that comes with batting at Headingley, before the second day’s play began. What followed was anything but. After 17 minutes, Jason Roy chased a wide one he had no need to play at, and edged it through to Warner. A good ball from Josh Hazlewood, and slightly hesitant footwork from Root saw him out for another duck, and England were 10 for two. Cummins then bounced out Burns, strangled down the leg side, and it was all going wrong.
At 34 for three, Stokes could barely reach the ball from Pattinson, but still managed to edge it to Warner. Why he was chasing after it in those circumstances, only he will know. Denly had battled away to make 12 and, for the ninth time in 11 innings, he was out between 10 and 30 – attempting a drive he did not have to play. Hazlewood then induced an edge from Jonny Bairstow, who could do little about it, and Warner held a great catch. By 12.48, England were 45 for six, and they were able to scrape through to lunch without further loss.
First ball after the break, Woakes was another to be strangled down the leg side: 54 for seven. Buttler then punched one for a catch in the covers, so two wickets had fallen in seven balls. The end wasn’t long in coming, and by 2.06 England were all out for 67, their lowest ever score at Headingley, beating a record set in 1907, and their lowest in Ashes since 1948. Hazlewood finished with figures of five for 30, his best against England. Warner took four catches in the innings. Denly’s 12 was the lowest top score in an England innings ever recorded. It was a humiliation, with most of the batsmen culpable for their own dismissals, despite the excellence of the bowling and fielding.
To make matters worse, the conditions were so much better than they had been on the first day, which meant that any decent batting from the tourists would surely make England’s run chase gargantuan. On the plus side, excluding Australia’s third-wicket partnership of 111, the other 19 wickets had fallen for just 135 runs. If England could bowl out Australia for another 135, to set up a chase of around 250, you felt they might still be in the game.
The ongoing Warner-Broad duel lasted just two balls, as Broad had the opener LBW for a duck. It was Broad’s 700th wicket in an England shirt in all formats. England needed to follow it with another quick wicket or two to get the crowd involved, but although wickets fell steadily, there was no clatter and the fans remained mostly subdued. All the rest of the top six made some sort of contribution, with Labuschagne again the pick of them.
There was also a real sense that things weren’t quite going England’s way. There was a dropped catch, two marginal LBWs that would have been upheld by DRS if they had been given (but it wasn’t surprising they weren’t), one decision that was given and then rightly overturned by DRS, a catch that wasn’t given because Stokes had marginally overstepped, and then Bairstow dropped a very tough one. Much of this action came from Stokes’s bowling, who managed an epic spell of 15 overs, keeping his pace at around 86 mph. How he deserved it when Wade was finally out for 33 off his bowling.
To make matters worse, Archer had to go off after pulling up with cramp, but before then he had further endeared himself to the crowd by running to intercept a steward, who was in the process of confiscating a blow-up water melon, and throwing it back into the stand. By close of play, Australia had progressed to 171 for six, with Labuschagne still there on 53 not out, and you felt that would surely be enough.
It took England most of the morning to polish off Australia, with Labuschagne finally run out for 80 after a great piece of work by Denly. Stokes ended up with three for 56 after a mammoth spell of 24.2 overs, and Australia were all out for 246, a lead of 358 runs. It was noticeable that, although we were heading into the fourth innings, the overhead conditions and a pitch that was barely 150 overs old were making batting look as easy as it had done all match. Could that help England as they set off in pursuit of their mammoth target?
It seemed not, as both England openers were blown away by Australia to leave the score on 15 for two, but Root and Denly dug in and eventually a war of attrition developed: the bowlers gave them nothing to hit, the batsmen gave them no hint of an opening. They gritted it out, Root taking 120 balls and Denly 134 to make their respective half-centuries. At the drinks break in the evening session, England had moved on to 138 for two in 55 overs. Soon after, the deserving Hazlewood struck again to remove Denly for 50 – it was an innings of real character and determination. By the close of the third day, England had moved on to 156 for three, with the match almost becalmed, Stokes having scored just two runs in more than 12 overs. Root and Stokes were still there; England needed 203 to save the series; Australia needed seven wickets to retain the Ashes. This truly was the calm before the storm.
Not that you’d have known it to begin with. Australia started with a series of maidens, as the batsmen tried to play themselves in. Then, for some reason, Root came after Lyon, and the edge was brilliantly caught by Warner, having made 77 off 205 balls. It was his sixth catch of the match. For Lyon it was also a significant moment: his 356th Test wicket, taking him past the total achieved by Dennis Lillee. Only Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne to catch now. Only!
Root was the man the Yorkshire crowd had hoped would lead the way to victory, but now they had another local hero to cheer, and Bairstow had an immediate impact, playing with freedom and positivity, enabling Stokes to come out of his shell. The scoreboard began to tick over faster and faster. At lunch England were 236 for four, and victory was only 123 runs away. England weren’t favourites by any means, but the chance of a famous win appeared a realistic dream.
The break came at a good time for the Australians, who had lost some of their discipline after taking the new ball. They returned more focused, more accurate and piled the pressure back on the batsmen. Where before Bairstow had been positive, now he seemed skittish, and soon he edged Hazlewood to fall for 36. Buttler was then run out for 1 in a disastrous mix-up, for which Stokes had to take the blame: 253 for six – advantage Australia. You sensed then, perhaps, that Stokes knew he could not let his side down.
Things didn’t improve for England. Woakes drove casually and uppishly into the covers: 261 for seven. Archer played some aggressive shots, but then went for one more when there was no need: 286 for eight. Broad fell in his customary way, trapped LBW to a yorker for his 33rd duck. Only Courtney Walsh, Chris Martin, McGrath and Warne have more than him. But at 286 for nine, there were more important things to consider as Jack Leach made his way to the middle. Having scored 92 earlier this summer, batting as nightwatchman against Ireland, he had shown himself to be no mug with the bat – but this was a different calibre of bowling, and Australia knew he was all that stood between them and the Ashes.
And Ben Stokes, of course.
What happened in the next 62 deliveries will never be forgotten by all who watched – and however many were in the crowd that day, you can sure their numbers will grow in the years to come. Having been the grittiest of batsmen earlier in the day – so much so that Geoffrey Boycott was heard cautioning against him going too much into his shell – he now went into full-on T20 mode, playing a range of beautifully executed, meticulously planned shots: a switch hit for six off Lyon, and scoop off Cummins for six. The target of 73 for the final pair came tumbling down; bowlers who had gone for two an over were now conceding ten or more, and on the fifth or sixth ball of each over, Stokes would take a single and keep Leach safe. Watching them was like seeing Superman Stokes and his mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent in action, the latter regularly wiping his glasses between deliveries, the only sense that he was perhaps sweating under his helmet.
As the tension and noise mounted – you’ve rarely heard a cricket crowd cheer a winning run in a final as when Leach saw off a dot ball – so Stokes became more driven, the coolest man on the field. His fours bisected fielders by feet to reach the boundary, while his sixes went over the fielders by inches. One shot just about carried to Harris in the deep, but he couldn’t hold on to it. In desperation, the Australians called for DRS for an LBW against Leach which had clearly pitched outside leg – no reviews left.
England were within ten as Lyon bowled. For once, it didn’t quite find the middle of Stokes’s bat, but it just cleared the man on the rope to go for six: two needed. Fifth ball, Leach charges down the wicket for a quick single only to be sent back to the non-striker’s end – the throw is decent but Lyon drops it and Leach is home safely. Last ball, Stokes misses the sweep and the ball cannons into his pads. Lyon is sure he has his man, the whole of Australia backs him up, but umpire Joel Wilson says not out. DRS is not available, but ball tracking shows it would have hit middle and leg to give them victory by one run.
Cummins to Leach in the next over. Third ball, he scrambles a single to get off the mark, his first run after 17 balls, but it means the Ashes are still alive. The field comes in to stop the single, but Stokes isn’t thinking about that. He crashes the ball through the covers, and lets out the most triumphant of roars: England have won it!
Somewhere along the way, Stokes had made 135 not out (219 balls, 11 fours and eight sixes), but the landmarks passed along the way were barely acknowledged in the search for the main reward. England’s winning total of 362 for nine was their highest ever to win a match; the last-wicket partnership of 76 was the second highest tenth-wicket partnership to win a match, just behind the 78 by Perera and Fernando earlier in the year, and it was only the second time in history that the tenth-wicket partnership had been greater than the entire first innings. For Australia, it was the ninth time since 1952 that they had been involved in a close finish where the winning margin was one wicket or less than ten runs – and they have not won one of them.
But this match wasn’t about the figures: it was pure emotion and drama. Stokes even went on to show that he may become a very successful agent after he retires by writing a tweet encouraging match sponsors Specsavers to give Leach free glasses for the rest of his life. Within minutes they had agreed to do so. As if they could ever have avoided bowing to the will of the man.
If you wanted to quibble, you might argue that the win covered up for many flaws in England’s performances and weaknesses in their line-up. But for now all that mattered was England had won in a way to stand comparison with Botham’s Ashes of 1981 and Flintoff’s Ashes of 2005. Could Stokes now imprint his name on the final two Tests at Old Trafford and The Oval? On this form, you wouldn’t want to bet against him.