Bob Willis believes England’s third Test victory over Australia, which saw Ben Stokes etch his name in Ashes folklore, eclipses the miracle of Headingley 1981 – and he was part of that famous win, taking a record 8/43 as the Ashes were levelled.
Set a record target of 359, England won an epic Test by one wicket after Stokes batted 330 minutes and 219 deliveries for an unbeaten 135 to level this series and keep the Ashes alive.
On day three, Stokes had batted 50 deliveries for two runs before stumps. His third ran came up off his 73rd delivery faced. His half-century needed 152 balls. As wickets fell, Stokes hung on from one end. He did not celebrate his century, which was raised in a period of stunning T20-style hitting, and only erupted as soon as he hit the winning runs.
Watching Stokes bat the entire fourth day at Headingley, while calling the match, former England fast bowler Willis was moved to term the World Cup hero’s century as superior to Ian Botham‘s fabled 149 not out at the same venue 28 years ago.
“Chasing down 359 to win and keep the Ashes alive after being bowled out for 67 in the first innings – that’s a story you’d find hard to believe in a comic strip,” said Willis on the Ashes Debate Podcast on Sky Sports.
“Quite how Ben Stokes had the strength to play an innings like that after his heroics in the World Cup and subsequent Tests was something else. Naturally, his unbeaten 135 will be compared to Ian Botham’s 149 at Headingley 38 years ago – and let me tell you that Ben’s is the better knock.”
Willis had a close-hand view of Botham’s swashbuckling batting at Headingley in 1981, first sitting on the team balcony and later adding 37 vital runs with the allrounder for the final wicket, his contribution being two runs from 31 balls before he was last out.
In contrast, he felt Stokes’ application was greater given the magnitude of the chase England were attempting.
“Ian’s started off as an outrageous slog with edges off the seam bowlers. Kim Hughes should have bowled the spinner Ray Bright earlier, and Ian would have hit one up in the air,” said Willis. “In contrast, Ben looked so composed – he knew when to press the accelerator, and he knew when to encourage his tail-enders at the other end. He played some outrageous strokes towards the end, displaying immense confidence. Some of the shots that Stokes played today hadn’t been invented when Ian was playing!”
Once the last man Jack Leach joined him, with England needing 73 runs to win, Stokes opened up with some audacious hits. It began with two sixes off Nathan Lyon in one over, over long-off and a reverse-sweep over deep point to bring the requirement to under 50 runs.
Then Stokes ramped Pat Cummins for six more, followed by a first-ball four off Josh Hazlewood to raise his century off 199 deliveries. The next two balls were smacked for sixes over deep square leg and deep midwicket. After Marcus Harris dropped a diving catch near third man with Stokes on 116, the English allrounder hit successive fours off Cummins.
In Lyon’s next over, Stokes was reprieved on an lbw shout because Australia did not have any reviews left, and the bowler himself fumbled a collection from Cummins at the non-striker’s end to give Leach a life.
Once Leach levelled the scores with a single, Stokes hit the winning runs with a back-foot punch off Cummins for four.
Watching the drama unfold, Willis marvelled at Stokes’ ability to stay calm and accelerate as well.
“I don’t think it was more by accident than design that those sixes only just carried over the boundary; he was in complete control,” he said. “Yes, he had to accelerate to get England down from needing 60-odd to 20-odd, but he didn’t panic at any stage.It was a remarkable innings from a remarkable cricketer, and it means the Ashes are very much up for grabs.”
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