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Why we’re right to get swept up in Ben Stokes’ brilliance – Lawrence Booth

Lawrence Booth by Lawrence Booth
@the_topspin 6 minute read

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack editor Lawrence Booth explores the heady immediate reaction to an all-time great innings.

Was it the ramp for six off Pat Cummins that did it for you? Or the reverse-mow off Nathan Lyon? Maybe it was the treatment of a low full-toss from Josh Hazlewood, paddled into the Western Terrace as if wiping crumbs from the table.

Arguably, the shot of the innings came with 13 needed. Ben Stokes had just bisected the leg-side boundary riders with a pull for four off Cummins, who was suddenly looking like cannon fodder after spending most of the Test doing a passable impression of Dennis Lillee.

The next delivery was short of a length. But Stokes was now seeing it like the huge inflatable water-melon Jofra Archer had thrown back into the crowd to raucous cheers 48 hours earlier. He stood tall, stayed on the back foot, and battered it past the bowler. Long-on and long-off had no chance.

Up in the commentary box, Ricky Ponting marvelled at the power of the stroke. As compliments go, that’s like being praised by Greta Thunberg for your up-cycling skills.

I write all this tentatively, because it seems that excited praise, penned in the heat of the moment with a deadline looming and thousands of fans leaping around and players on the verge of tears and an Ashes alive and kicking… it seems this is a dangerous business. To adapt an old saw for a new age, outrage can travel halfway round the world while a compliment is still putting its pants on.

In the case of Stokes’s once-in-a-lifetime 135 not out, the outrage didn’t take long. How, they wondered, could Stokes have played the greatest innings of all time when Kusal Perera had, not six months earlier, hit 153 not out to help Sri Lanka stun South Africa in Durban? Then there was the headline in one Australian newspaper: ‘Ben Stokes was out, so 3rd Test heroics should not have counted’.

It felt like a throwback to the World Cup final, when the joy in England and the magnanimity in New Zealand were drowned out by whinges from Australia and India, two countries with no skin in the game (except profound irritation that England had lifted the trophy).

Here’s the thing. At the moment it happened, England’s World Cup win felt like the greatest miracle any sport had ever seen, and it was written up accordingly, by dozens of journalists who had about five minutes to try to make any kind of sense of it all, which wasn’t easy with sweaty palms and pounding hearts.

And at the moment Stokes whacked Cummins through cover – what a shot, by the way – that too felt like the culmination of the greatest Test innings most of us could remember.

Immediacy does funny things to the mind: evolutionary scientists say we’re more hard-wired to react to the rustle in a nearby bush than to the storm on the distant horizon – it’s why climate change gets swept under the carpet. That’s not to belittle Perera, nor to deny that Joel Wilson had a stinker when he ruled Stokes not out to Lyon. It’s just, y’know, to wallow in the emotion of sport.

And wallow we really should. At the risk of coming across all Ashes-centric – and with apologies to Mark Butcher circa 2001 – England fans can now talk about a Headingley innings other than Ian Botham’s. They can ask whether 2019 is beginning to rival 2005. They can wonder where Stokes sits in the pantheon of all-rounders. A few of the lucky ones will even be able to say they were there, and bore their kids and grandkids for years to come.

And you know what? It’s all just a bit of fun. Don’t take these things too seriously, guys. There is plenty of that kind of thing in the real world.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch the highlights again: I need to decide, as a matter of urgency, whether Lyon’s run-out attempt is above or below Fred Tate’s drop at Old Trafford in 1902 in the list of all-time Ashes gaffes. Be sure to let me know how I get on.

Lawrence Booth is editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and a cricket writer for the Daily Mail.

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