Ben Stokes produced his second ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ performance of the summer as his magnificent century powered England to an unprecedented, unthinkable one-wicket victory at Headingley to keep the Ashes alive.
Stokes hit 135 not out, channelled the spirit of Sir Ian Botham in 1981 and even eclipsed his match-winning turn in the World Cup final, to lead England to their record chase of 359.
Anything less and Australia would have retained the urn at 2-0 with two to play but what transpired was simply one of the most incredible roars of defiance ever seen on a cricket field, as he led last man Jack Leach in an unbroken stand of 76 for the final wicket.
Stokes hit eight sixes and 11 fours as he instantly laid claim to one of the greatest innings of all time, while Leach’s solitary run was the one that levelled the scores.
The last half-hour of play could, and probably will fill books given time, but while a sold-out crowd allowed themselves to be whipped into a frenzy by the sheer implausibility of what they were witnessing, Stokes kept a relentless focus at the eye of the storm.
Australia had two chances to snatch a famous win of their own in the 125th over of an epic innings, but they instead go down as footnotes in Stokes’ story. With England still one run behind, Nathan Lyon dropped a throw from Pat Cummins at the bowler’s end when a clean take would have allowed him to easily run out the over-exuberant Leach with ease.
Stokes aimed a big slog-sweep at the very next delivery, missing but given not out by umpire Joel Wilson. Replays showed he was bang to rights but Australia had frittered away their last review in the previous over on a hopeless shout against Leach.
Three balls later the number 11 fended Cummins to leg for one, guaranteeing a tie, leaving the stage for Stokes. He did not linger, planting Cummins through the covers for a majestic winning boundary before letting loose a guttural roar that will echo all the way from Manchester to Melbourne.
England were down and out when Stuart Broad was ninth man down on 286, still 73 adrift of the winning line with Stokes on a defiant but seemingly doomed 61.
But this is a man who knows few limits, emboldened by the highs of guiding his country through a triumphant World Cup campaign. He launched Lyon for six, then another and then unfurled a pair of quite exquisite shots, masterpieces of imagination and application.
The first was a glorious, up-and-under reverse sweep off Lyon, sucked into the Western Terrace by every available England fan. The next off Cummins was outrageous, a pre-meditated ramp shot flipped over the ropes at fine leg.
It was daring, it was defiant, but it was destined to fail… surely? But the target was under 40 now, almost achievable.
Stokes barely realised he was on 96 and did not show a flicker of emotion when he crunched a pull for four to reach his century in 199 balls. At stumps on day three he had been two not out from 50, but that was a rearguard and this was a riot.
The next ball was a full toss from Hazlewood. Six over square leg. The third of the over was a length ball. Another six for the Western Terrace to hold. He dashed a pair then left Leach to face one ball, leg-side and missing the stumps. Hazlewood, Australia’s best bowler of the match, had shipped 19 in an over.
And so to the 124th over, another journey of emotions. Stokes, on 116, carved Lyon’s first ball to third man and a diving Marcus Harris grassed it as the chance died on him. The same had happened to Simon Jones in the famous Edgbaston Test of 2005, but England had still won the match.
Stokes refused to allow Australia the same grace. He pounded the next two balls to the boundary, square through midwicket and dead straight down the ground. Leach survived an optimistic lbw but Tim Paine gambled with England nine from glory. Not out, DRS gone.
After two dots from Lyon, Stokes swung hard and high but not out of the middle. Marnus Labuschagne was interested all the way until it cleared his outstretched arms for six. Lyon sunk to his knees and covered his eyes.
The botched run-out, the dreadful lbw decision and the magnificent winning runs were still to come. It was exhausting, exhilarating stuff and there are still two Tests to go.
It is hard to believe that England’s first attempt at batting in the match saw them skittled for 67 inside 28 overs, or that Stokes played the worst shot of all.
Hard too, to believe that the day begain with four maiden overs and the early dismissal of key man Joe Root, who added just two runs to his overnight 75 before being brilliantly caught at slip by David Warner via bat and pad.
The second new ball was taken shortly after but Stokes joined Jonny Bairstow in a fine, counter-attack partnership worth 86 vital runs in 130 balls. Bairstow’s patience snapped on 36 and Stokes was involved in a horrendous run out of Jos Buttler for one, a miscommunication that might have haunted both had England subsided.
Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer came and went before the unlikely figure of Leach soaked up 17 balls in an hour, allowing Stokes to pen his masterpiece.