Ben Stokes’ incredible innings didn’t just save the Ashes for England, it completely reinvigorated the series – not to mention the England versus Australia rivalry.
After England were bowled out for 67 runs in the first innings at Headingley, the knives were out for Joe Root and his team.
With it appearing as if the Ashes had been retained by the Australians, the repercussions of England losing on home soil began. The UK press – a savage and brutal entity at the best of times – ripped in, with simple but cutting headlines such as “Hopeless”.
— Adam Collins (@collinsadam) August 24, 2019
Changes apparently needed to be made, and made immediately.
Root had to be stripped of the captaincy, and bumped down the order to number four or five. The ECB needed to stop concentrating on limited-overs cricket, and instead rebuild the Test side.
Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Denly and Jos Buttler had to be dropped (never mind that there were no suggestions of who should replace them, exactly).
Those comments were actually some of the more rational ones, believe it or not.
Test cricket is a unique beast though – there’s simply nothing else like it. Just a few days later, and the narrative had switched to how heroic Stokes was, and that Australia could no longer win the Ashes. What a turnaround in fortunes and outlook.
In the blink of an eye – or one outstanding innings, to be precise – the series had turned on its head. The Ausies had gone from an unassailable position of strength, to reeling from a shocking loss. England had gone from an embarrassment, to being sized up for MBEs from the Queen.
Stokes’ historic knock changed the total complexion of the series, with England now with all the momentum heading into the last two Tests, and Australia needing to pick themselves up off the mat and show some incredible resilience.
An Ashes that looked all but over, is now anything but.
What Stokes’ incredible 135 not out also did was light a fuse under a series that has been a little bit subdued, by Ashes standards.
England versus Australia is the oldest rivalry in cricket, and over the years it has often turned bitter, nasty, petty and aggressive.
There have been a number of pantomime villains on both sides, and the reality is that it adds to the drama, excitement and stakes when the two countries – let alone teams – become a little antsy.
That had been somewhat lacking thus far.
The elephant in the room is that since the Cape Town ball-tampering incident, the Australian cricket team have been on their best behaviour, knowing they need to rebuild trust, and change the perceptions widely held about them around the globe.
Likewise, Australian fans have been a little muted, knowing exactly what the comeback will be should they get too lippy.
Both of these facts have ensured that the banter – on and off the field – has not reached previous levels.
Sure, the English press and crowds, led by the Barmy Army, have been as vocal and vitriolic as ever. When a despised opposition provides you with such rich ammunition as being caught with sandpaper down their trousers, the resulting roasting should be as expected as a Steve Smith hundred.
Yet Australia’s response – in particular, Dave Warner playfully showing the English crowd what was not in his pockets – slightly defused even that narrative.
An iconic photo as Australian opener David Warner reacts to the chants coming from the English fans at Edgbaston by showing them his pockets during the first Test of #TheAshes ???? pic.twitter.com/uI2kzzdrNE
— SuperSport (@SuperSportTV) August 3, 2019
Then, with Australia all but assured of retaining the urn after England’s batting capitulation in the third Test, the heat really went out of the series. The local media and fans were too busy mauling their own team to engage in any banter.
That changed just two days later. Suddenly the English found their voice again. The volume of headlines, tweets, texts, WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts, voicemails, memes, and songs – all directed Australia’s way – went through the roof.
On Twitter, the usual suspects, led by Matt ‘Glass Jaw’ Prior, sounded off. When Shane Warne replied, all hell broke loose.
Excuse me? Just because Lyon knocked you over for fun, there’s still no need for that kind of silly and immature behaviour. Grow up, and enough of those stupid comments. Let’s celebrate the wonderful game of test cricket & the Ashes please ! https://t.co/lxaLjISJzY
— Shane Warne (@ShaneWarne) August 26, 2019
Then Stuart Broad chimed in, and suddenly it was game on!
Fans from both countries starting getting narky, irrational, hypocritical, emotional and fiery.
After copping all the sandpaper jokes, Aussie fans suddenly had no issue bringing up Ben Stokes’ assault (non) charge, Murray Mints, Jofra Archer’s ‘Englishness’, Joe Root’s captaincy (and resemblance to Ellen DeGeneres), Stuart Broad not walking, Michael Vaughan’s ability to give it but it not take it, Jason Roy’s ‘excellent’ batting, Matt Prior being scared of Mitchell Johnson, etc, etc.
Oh boy. The bite was back.
So now we turn to the fourth Test at Old Trafford. A cocky home side, fuelled by an amazing come-from-behind win, are filled with swagger and momentum. A despondent Australia, hurt from a devastating loss, will hopefully mirror their fans’ behaviour, and come out swinging.
The series is alive. The banter is alive.
While I would have been happy with Australia simply winning the Test, and therefore the Ashes, I do love competition almost as much as I love a bit of banter. So, thank you Ben Stokes. If nothing else, you’ve brought back the lip.
Which means you’ve brought back a key component of what makes the Ashes truly great.