Just past eight o’clock on Sunday evening, the heat abating from a day that has burnt itself into the memory; I am at the local park. About one hundred yards away, out to my right, two young lads walk home. They are carrying a bat and a ball, and tucked uncomfortably under an arm, a set of stumps each. Blue, plastic and lightweight, but awkward to carry. They are probably brothers. One is visibly bigger than the other. My guess is he has been doing a majority of the batting; that’s the way things are. They both look over their shoulder at me and my dogs. I want to stick a hand up in appreciation. To acknowledge what they’re up to. I don’t. I’m not a weirdo. Despite how odd the day has been.
1981 and 2019. Odd numbers. Nineteen years either side of a millennium. A miraculous mirror in which to view both Botham and Stokes at Headingley. 38 years. Something in the back of your mind says that doesn’t work: the Ashes is played every four years at home. It is. Although the cycle has a small kink in it. Between the British summers of 2013 and 2015, three lots of Ashes series were played. The process was changed because of, wait for it, the Australians’ reluctance to have their hosting of it clashing with a Cricket World Cup.
Maybe numbers aren’t your thing. Words? This was meant to be. To stoke; to feed a fire with fuel, a fire that looks as though it is going out. ‘Ben’ meaning ‘inside or within’, or in Scotland ‘mountain’, or ‘son of’ in Hebrew. From the French, Italian and Latin meaning ‘well, or good’.
To leach; to dissolve out soluble constituents from (ashes, soil, etc.) by percolation. Jack; a device used to lift up a heavier object. In slang, ‘jack’ can mean to rob or steal; it can also be used to signify nothing or very little, as in ‘he’s got jack…’
Etymology. And yet, there are few words to accurately describe what came to be. The light and shade of the day. No runs scored off the first four overs. Rooted to the spot. Unlike David Warner, who dived spectacularly to remove England’s captain. The Australian slip fielder turned and flexed in the direction of the away team’s balcony. Unaware of what he’d done. Root’s restraint was shackling Stokes. Flame-haired brilliance needs a catalyst. Takes one to know one. Bairstow of the Headingley parish, staring at his pitch; trying to draw out its fire. This bowling attack is the best in the world though. Bairstow couldn’t bear out. Jonny was followed by Jos and then Jofra. Has it occurred to you how many of this England team’s first names begin with J? 7 out of 11 by the way. Woakes was anything but woke as he lifted his drive absentmindedly to mid-off and Broad was caught narrow and plumb in front.
Bring on J Leach. Bespectacled and toothy, and crucially, a man with two pieces of recent history: his 92 as a nightwatchman against Ireland had given him belief with the bat; his previous dismissal would end up working against Australia. Leach has a noticeable habit of moving across his crease and exposing his leg stump. Hazlewood had bowled him out on that peg in the first innings. Tim Paine used up his last referral in the second on the thought Leach must have transgressed again, despite the umpire’s defiant shake of the head. He wasn’t leg-before. Not by a long way. DRS said Stokes was, later on, but the Aussies were already spent.
Some more magic numbers: Stokes’ 50 came off 152 balls. He would win the game, unbeaten on 135, crashing a four through the covers, 67 balls later. Ha, 67. England’s first-innings’ total; the amount that had got them into this mess. Our hero cared not for what had come before. He lashed and lacerated any ball that suggested chance. Australians sprawled themselves around the boundary’s edge; Hazlewood, Warner, Labuschagne, all flailing and failing to prevent Stokes making the rope. And yet with two runs to get, and after an audacious reverse sweep, it was Leach at a loss. With shadows lengthening and the batsman left short, an inexplicable and exonerating fumble from Nathan Lyon next to the stumps. What was the number on his back? Take a look. 67.
Of course, what Stokes has delivered is as old as time itself; beyond cricket, beyond sport even. It sits inside our soul, accompanying each one of us into new and seemingly tricky situations. It takes a young boy and his brother out of their home and into the park. It takes us from despair to belief, from opportunity to success. That is what moves you most about this innings. How big the challenge and how small the chance. Yet, it was possible. Stokes’ heat will warm so many, for so long, without cost or charge. He has given us hope. Emily Dickinson’s twelve lines are better than any others. I will leave them with you.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.