If they want to win the Ashes back England really shouldn’t have to rely on Ben Stokes.
After all, he’s already performed enough miracles in six weeks to last even the most talented sportsman a lifetime.
This summer he’s won them a first World Cup and kept the Ashes alive, so really in the interest of the team sharing the burden of responsibility, it should be someone else’s turn to step up to the mark.
However, if Stokes’s characteristics and England’s Ashes history with charismatic all-rounders are anything to go by you wouldn’t put it past him continuing on his path to attaining even more glory.
If we’ve learned anything from the often unbelievable events at Lord’s and Headingley it’s that Stokes relishes a challenge and thrives on being in the centre of the action – no matter how ridiculously the drama is heightened.
Remind you of anyone? Ten days on from the climax of Stokes’s latest mind-bending feat of skill, endurance and guts there has been plenty of time to draw parallels. Two names and years kept cropping up: Ian Botham in 1981 and Andrew Flintoff in 2005.
The unique nature of cricket allows such comparisons to flourish, and in this case they work for a reason.
Three all-time great English all-rounders fighting back against Australia in Ashes Test matches, wrestling momentum through the sheer force of their personality and dragging their side back into memorable series.
This summer has already been memorable enough but, with the Ashes tied at 1-1 with two Tests left to play, you sense there’s more drama to come – starting tomorrow morning in the fourth Test at Old Trafford.
With the momentum now with England thanks to Stokes’s unbeaten 135 to secure victory by one wicket at Headingley, he’ll now hope to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and finish the job.
The parallels between Stokes 2019 and Botham 1981 are uncanny. Both scored unbeaten centuries in apparently lost-cause second innings at Headingley in the third Test of a home Ashes series to help their sides level up at 1-1.
When you look at some of Botham’s reflections on that heady summer, they begin to ring even truer with Stokes.
“I felt I could do anything on a cricket field,” Botham told The Mirror of that Ashes summer 30 years later.
“I went from being a bit of an outcast, with people turning their backs on me, to being the flavour of the month with everyone wanting a piece.”
While Botham’s comeback was from a loss of form and torrid time as captain, not a nightclub incident and following court case, the narrative arc is reminiscent nevertheless.
After he and Bob Willis tied the series at Headingley, Botham went on to put in another two man-of-the-match performances as England won the following two Tests to complete the turnaround and take the series 3-1.
In 2005, after being thrashed by 239 runs in the first Test, England needed a hero. Flintoff stood up, scoring a vital 73 and taking seven wickets as the hosts won one of the best ever Test matches by just two runs at Edgbaston.
Momentum reversed, he followed that with six wickets in a draw at Old Trafford, a century in the win at Trent Bridge and a five-wicket haul in the finale at The Oval.
Like Stokes, who refused to acknowledge personal landmarks in his mammoth effort at Headingley, Flintoff was keen to shift the focus to the team.
“People make a lot of my part but it’s embarrassing,” he told the Independent in 2015.
“Everyone played their part. I was no different. My job was made so much easier by the people around me. I didn’t have any pressure.”
Whether the three all-rounders enjoyed the spotlight or not, they were the focus of attention.
Botham won the BBC Sports Personality award in 1981, while Flintoff did the same in 2005. Needless to say Stokes is already red-hot 1-5 favourite to follow in their footsteps this year.
Third act pending
Stokes has had time for his achievement at Headingley to sink it but he admitted this week that it doesn’t feel as sweet at July’s World Cup winning effort yet.
To cement his status as a national hero and write himself into the history books alongside Botham and Flintoff he must ensure England win the Ashes.
To a greater extent than the England sides of yesteryear, Stokes’s iteration have plenty of problems to overcome in order to achieve their goals.
They have just been bowled out for 67 by their Australian rivals. They are without their all-time leading Test wicket-taker due to injury and have reshuffled their top order in hope, rather than expectancy, of setting solid foundations.
After all he’s done over a gruelling non-stop summer it’s undoubtedly a tough ask for one player to paper over all those cracks. But if anyone can do it, it’s probably Ben Stokes.
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