Ed Hawkins: Stokes the greatest but England have won nothing yet

Ben Stokes
Stokes: the power and the glory

Our cricket correspondent says it's worth remembering that the hosts still have work to do to regain the urn...

"Like one of his exocets that tore the Leeds sky, Stokes has been propelled through the Hall of Fame, unhinging the dusty mug shots, and into his own Palace of Glory"

The greatest

Two things happened at Headingley on Sunday. One which no-one will need reminding for another 50 years - at least. The other? Well, it won't do any harm to provide a prompt a few days before the start of the fourth Ashes Test in Manchester.

The first, of course, is Ben Stokes. The obvious starting point is that epoch-shattering innings. The less obvious is his muscle-bulging bowling as Australia sought to bat England out of the series. Without it - remember he dropped to the turf exhausted after an effort ball to bump Matthew Wade - England would likely have been chasing in the manner of a dachshund after a hare.

Stokes' sheer ferocity of will gave England the merest whiff of the game. He bent his back, his eyes bulged, blood pumped. It was nothing but violent, brute power spent because he knows no other mantra: for his team-mates he leaves it all out there. It was a wonder he had anything left in reserve when it came to batting.

That he did and the manner in which he displayed it, ironically, could damn a whole generation of English all-rounders. The hunt for the new Botham lost its way some years back when the search party became increasingly disillusioned when all they could unearth were the likes of Adam Hollioake and Mark Ealham. They will be back in a few years, though, when Stokes calls time and the desperation to find his replacement begins. The new Stokes.

The re-runs of Headingley 2019 will quicken resolve. In truth, there will never be another like Stokes. Probably never has been one like him. If the filter is the biggest of matches with a team choking on the cold steel of the barrel, Stokes is the greatest there has ever been. The World Cup final rescue mission was of such ostentatious skill, nerve and swagger that Stokes could have drifted back towards the mean and no one would have raised a quibble. No-one would have noticed.

Six weeks later he has matched it. The audacity of the man to go there again, when most mortals will have been at peace that they had produced the extraordinary. Who does that? Who has done that before? The answer is nobody. Like one of his exocets that tore the Leeds sky, Stokes has been propelled through the Hall of Fame, unhinging the dusty mug shots, and into his own Palace of Glory. It's going to be quite lonely there.

Those in the cricketing correctness brigade will demand we mention Kusal Perera and his wonderful 153 not out in the fourth against South Africa in February. Is he not there, too? Nope. We repeat: World Cup final, Ashes-saving Test, England as good as beat.

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Hard work starts here

And that brings us to the thing that didn't happen. When the excited praise and purple prose stops (and it might not for some time), it is worth remembering this: the series is tied at 1-1. England did not win the Ashes in Leeds. Stokes earned them the chance to fight again. And fight they must. Defeat in one of the last two Tests will mean the Ashes are retained by Australia. Maybe if England fail Stokes will have to move out of that vacuous palace.

The chances of that? England are favourites to ensure Stokes is going nowhere. They are 2.526/4 although the draw is next best at 2.9015/8. Australia are out to 3.7011/4 as the idea takes hold that Tim Paine and co will not be able to recover.

That makes us uncomfortable. For the first time in the series we are in uncharted territory. Before Stokes did what he did, there was no need for a compass or map. These were two average teams, prized apart by the brilliance of Steve Smith and the coin-flip damning technically inept batting units in the fourth innings. The strategy was simple.

Now less so. Worse, we are left wondering what is going on inside the heads of the Australians. There can be no doubt that in the Headingley heat, they were frazzled. The minds of Marcus Harris and Nathan Lyon were unable to allow their bodies (or hands in the instances of them dropping the ball) to do what they have been perfectly, beautifully and naturally honed to do since childhood. Tim Paine, meanwhile, was unable to exert rational thought. The umpire gave it not out. It was going down leg. Review?

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A sports psychologist would call this 'noise'. When pressure came - and we're talking the intense, career-defining sort - those three were unable to process basic functions. Cup of tea in the morning stuff. Australia cracked under that pressure, that cacophony. The question is: can they block it out? Steve Smith is a beta blocker is more ways than one.

It's anyone's guess. And we will only truly know until the autobiographies are published. It will be Lyon admitting that the feeling of the ball slipping through his fingers never left him for a minute. Or Paine 'writing' that he pored over the TV footage of the ill-fated Cummins leg-before call every night for the rest of the tour.

By the way, it's the same noise which came to Leach when he was halfway down the wicket. And probably the same between Stokes' ears when he swept Lyon when bang in front. It comes when you are about to achieve something. Until then...it's pretty quiet.

Maybe it's not as complicated as all that. Maybe we can forget the psychological second guessing. England are a team who have been bowled out for fewer than 100 three times this year. They have Jason Roy opening the batting. Joe Denly takes tops honours with 12. They needed the greatest innings of all time - six weeks after a 'one of' contender by the same man - to make the record books read like a gag book. Stokes can't do it again. Can he?

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