The summer of 2019 may have seen England win the Cricket World Cup and Australia retain the Ashes, but it belonged to Ben Stokes.
English – and indeed, all – cricket fans were treated to not one but two once-in-a-generation innings in the space of 47 days.
Owing to the English summer, Australia knew that winning two Tests would likely be enough to take the urn back Down Under, and despite being reduced to 122/8 in the first innings of the first Test, taking a 90-run lead into the second innings, Australia were in a position to declare, skittling England for just 146, winning the opener.
The inevitable draw came in the second Test, meaning that Australia only needed to win one of the final three Tests to retain the Ashes.
Of course, there was plenty of Ashes history already at Headingley; the scene of Botham's Ashes was centred on the 1981 Headingley Test, and it was a ground where the Baggy Greens had won four of their last five Ashes Tests; England had won three in a row before that.
England captain Joe Root won the toss and elected to field, eyeing up the generous bowling conditions. The decision paid off; Jofra Archer took six wickets for 45 runs as Australia were bowled out for 179, with better batting conditions to come.
Supposedly better batting conditions, anyway. Over the years, England fans had been treated to many a batting collapse – several under Root’s stewardship alone – but scores of 9, 9, 0, 12, 8, 4, 5, 5, 7, 4 and 1 with the Ashes on the line and runs to be had was inexcusable.
The Australians bowled well, but wickets were gifted, and the tourists spent just 27.5 overs on the field as England posted their lowest Ashes score since 1947.
The under-pressure Roy did little to strengthen his Test match credentials on the back of a terrific Cricket World Cup, going for nine. Root quickly followed for a duck. Joe Denly top-scored with an unconvincing 12.
England trailed by 112 runs and would likely have to restrict Australia to 200 in the second innings to have any chance. Only 31 times in the history of Test cricket had a total of more than 300 runs been chased down, and England themselves had done it just three times.
To the bowlers’ credit, David Warner, Marcus Harris and Usman Khawaja were all dismissed before racking up a score. Australia had been reduced to 97/4 before a 66-run partnership from Marnus Labuschagne and Matthew Wade put the tourists in pole position.
The wickets of Wade and Tim Paine saw Australia finish the day with four wickets remaining, but a lead of 283 runs.
The Test, and the Ashes, were slipping away from England.
Day three saw Labuschagne eventually run out for 80, with Australia all-out for 246 – a lead of 358.
England were chasing not just 359, but history itself. Only nine times had a score of 359 or more been chased down, and never by England. Nor had it ever been chased down by a team who failed to score at least 200 first-innings runs, never mind 67.
To say the hosts had a mountain to climb would be an understatement.
In Root and Stokes, England had big runs in the team, despite the skipper’s struggles with the bat during his captaincy – and the move to 3 wasn’t helping – but to score those runs, they needed their openers to do their job.
Burns went for seven runs off 21 balls; Roy went for eight runs off 18 balls.
The penultimate nail had been driven into the coffin by Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins.
England needed 344 runs with eight wickets left, but credit to Root and Denly, their 126-run partnership provided the hosts with a glimmer of hope; the impossible had become the unlikely, but as Australia continued to turn the screw, Denly finally went for 50.
Stokes arrived at the crease, digging in with Root, scoring just two runs off 50 balls to see the day out.
Logic would suggest that Root and Stokes would try make hay while the sun was shining to start day four with the new ball coming in eight overs, but they picked up where they left off, with four maidens.
Root was only able to add two more runs to his overnight total, and the key wicket went. England were 159/4. 200 to go with six wickets left.
But once again, England hauled themselves off the canvas. Stokes and new partner Bairstow went on the front foot.
In the 130 balls after Root’s dismissal, England added 86 more runs to the total; a massive partnership in the context of the match, and considering how well Bairstow was seeing the ball, his wicket was even harder to take.
From the possible, to the probable, back to the unlikely.
England needed just 114 more runs with Bairstow and Stokes in the middle when the momentum shifted once again.
Bairstow fell for 36 with Jos Buttler arriving at the crease.
A titan of the white-ball game but a shaky Test match batter, Buttler’s sub-30 average would need to be improved upon if England were to get over the line. Cheap wickets were out of the question.
But as it so often does, one wicket brought two.
Buttler scored just one run off nine balls, but could thank Stokes for his dismissal. An assertive “yes, yes, yes” was followed by an equally assertive, if somewhat more fearful “no, no, no” when the all-rounder realised he’d found Travis Head at midwicket, whose direct hit sent Buttler back to the pavilion.
106 required with just Stokes and the tail left. But hope remained. Chris Woakes was next up on the back of three consecutive Ashes 30s. He also had four half-centuries and an unbeaten 137 against India on his resume.
Woakes went for one. Another soft dismissal England could hardly afford.
Up stepped Jofra Archer, who’d bowled fantastically on day one, and hung around for a respectable 33 balls which included three boundaries.
But Stokes didn’t need a scorer; he needed a partner. Archer tried an overly ambitious slog sweep, caught on the boundary.
Broad was the next man in; a once-respectable tailender who’d notched 10 half-centuries in 103 innings, battle-scarred after being on the receiving end of a bouncer that broke his nose five years previous, which he admitted shook his confidence, and he was never the same with the bat again.
Broad didn’t get the opportunity to get Stokes back on strike, caught LBW after just two balls.
England had gone from the impossible, to the unlikely, to the probable and all the way back again.
73 runs were now required, and it was all on Ben Stokes. The Western Terrace which had grown louder throughout the afternoon had lost its voice.
Out came the bespectacled Jack Leach, wearing enough armour to feel safe on a medieval battlefield.
His first task was to see out the over Broad failed to. He’d evade the first two bouncers and deal with the yorker next ball. The fourth and final ball of the over was short; Leach got bat on ball, and to give you an idea of what was going through his head, he briefly motioned for the single to take the strike away from Stokes in the following over.
But his first job was done. Over to Stokes.
Stokes, too, did his job perfectly. Hitting Lyon for six before nicking a single on the final run of the over.
Three more runs followed with Leach having to face the final ball of the 118th over, safely ducking under a Pattinson bouncer. Back to Stokes.
Hearts were briefly in mouths when Stokes sent one back over Lyon’s head with Hazlewood on the boundary, but he couldn’t reach, and six more were knocked off the total.
Staying on the front foot, Stokes cleared the boundary with a ridiculous reverse slog sweep. His quick single off the final ball over the over was cheered just as much as the six.
Headingley had found its voice once again, but 49 more were needed, and not able to get back for a second meant Leach would have to face four balls.
Four balls he’d field well. The two roles couldn’t be more clearly defined; Stokes: score; Leach: survive, and survive he did.
Stokes would ramp a 6 into the crowd, and Leach would face one more ball, his continued survival at the end of each over cheered like a wicket had been taken.
The first ball of the 122nd over was clubbed for four as Stokes brought up his century. But there was no removal of the helmet; there was no raising of the bat. As brilliant as Stokes as been, a century meant nothing without the win.
Hazlewood was sent for back-to-back sixes, shipping 16 runs off three balls as England needed just 21. In the blink of an eye, the Test had been turned on its head.
The finishing line was back in sight, but Australia were always one wicket, one ball away from retaining the Ashes.
And that ball looked like it had come. Stokes trying to go back down the ground got a thick edge towards third man, and while it was by no means a straightforward catch, the diving Marcus Harris did get there and couldn’t hold on.
It was Stokes’s turn to survive, and he’d make Australia pay with two consecutive boundaries.
England’s target had gone from 359 to single figures. A six and a four would see England home; surely Stokes would be tempted to try finish it in the final three balls of the over?
He’d have to settle for a single, and nerves were jangling once again with Leach now forced to face two deliveries.
Stokes was on his haunches at the non-striker’s end, unable to watch.
Leach evaded the first bouncer, when what can only be described as the first of two moments of madness saw Tim Paine appeal an LBW that was pitching outside leg. Review lost, and how important that would be in six balls’ time…
Stokes went back down the ground, six more. England needed one to tie, two to win. We were finally in Edgbaston 2005 territory.
And after being unable to trouble Stokes – and Leach for that matter – Australia’s moment finally came.
The chance to win by one run, Stokes plays a reverse sweep to backward point and Leach was off. As if on auto-pilot, recognising it was the penultimate ball of the over and his time was coming.
Halfway down the wicket before slamming it into reverse, Leach was miles from safety. Nathan Lyon simply needed to gather the ball and remove the bails.
But in this environment, nothing is simple, and in this environment, mistakes are made.
He made amends – almost – with the very next delivery, trapping Stokes LBW, but despite the most desperate of appeals, Joel Wilson was unmoved.
Pitching? In-line. Impact? In-line. Wickets? Hitting. Reviews remaining? Zero.
Australia had to dust themselves down and go again. The plus side was Cummins would get one more crack at Leach.
First ball was a predictable bouncer. Second ball was fended off. Third ball was poked away; a moment’s pause and then the run of his life.
England had scored 286 runs when Leach entered the fray. 71 runs later, Leach decided add to the tally.
England were level and Stokes was on strike. They could not lose.
And on the very next delivery, short and wide, almost exactly one hour after Leach came to the crease, Stokes slashed a cut through the off-side for four to secure the most incredible win.
Pandemonium in the stands, jubilation in the middle.
The irrepressible Steve Smith returned to the line-up for the fourth Test, scoring 293 runs across two innings as Australia declared twice, winning by 185 runs to ensure the urn would head back Down Under.
But it almost didn't matter.
2019 was the summer of English cricket.
It was the summer of Ben Stokes.