They are images that will remain scorched into our minds for as long as this epic English summer of 2019 is remembered.
It’s early in the World Cup and England are playing South Africa. Lower-order batsman Andile Phehlukwayo goes down on one knee and sweeps Adil Rashid powerfully towards the square leg boundary.
It looks like the ball may go for six. A four, at least, is assured.
But then Ben Stokes saunters into view. He tracks the flight of the ball and launches himself off his left foot. With his right knee now parallel to the ground and his right arm stretching towards the heavens, Stokes has contorted his athletic body so that his back is facing the batsman. But, crucially, so is the palm of his twisted right hand.
Stokes plucks the ball from sky – its triumphant flight abruptly terminated – and Stokes falls to the ground, rolling across the grass, before casually standing and raising his right hand in jubilant exultation.
The summer of Ben has begun.
Jump forward to the climax of the World Cup final. Stokes has already played a mighty innings to bring England within sight of victory. They need 15 to win from six balls. But the first two strokes of the final over go to fieldsmen and Stokes cannot score. Now it’s an improbable 15 from four. Perhaps England will fall valiantly short.
But Stokes is not done yet. He plays a glorious slog sweep and the ball soars over the mid-wicket fence. Nine runs to win. Three balls to come.
Then comes a moment of unscripted mayhem which will cause controversy for years. After heaving the ball towards deep mid-wicket, Stokes is galloping back for a crucial second run as the throw flashes back from Martin Guptill towards the expectant keeper.
A direct hit and Stokes will be out. As he catapults himself in a powerful dive towards the crease, the darting ball collides with Stokes’ grasping bat and is deflected to the boundary for an additional four runs.
Suddenly, the target is a mere three from two. One good hit will do it.
A suicidal second run sees Adil Rashid run out at the bowler’s end but, crucially, leaves Stokes on strike for the final ball. One run will send the final into a super over. Anything more than one run and England wins.
Stokes bunts the full toss towards mid-wicket and he hurtles down the pitch, his legs pumping powerfully. He gets to the other end. The scores are tied. He tumble turns. Back towards the keeper he sprints. Have England won the World Cup? Stokes has done his part. Yet he turns to see Mark Wood diving forlornly as the bowler’s end stumps are broken.
Stokes spontaneously drop-kicks his bat and throws his head to the sky in anguish. Not out 84, but the quest is not complete.
Stokes helps England post 15 runs in the super over. New Zealand do the same and, for reasons which are lost in a labyrinth of shifting laws, England are awarded the trophy.
But none of that matters in the moment. As Guptill is run out, Stokes falls onto his back and roars with primal elation as he lies on the turf at Lord’s.
It’s one of the greatest one-day matches of all time. It’s certainly the best World Cup Final. And Stokes – in his summer of celebration – is the man of the match.
Just six weeks later, the greatest limited-overs contest is overshadowed by, arguably, the greatest Test. And Stokes is again at the centre of the gladiatorial cauldron.
Australia have set England a daunting 359 runs to win. If they fall short, the Aussies retain the Ashes.
At 3 for 141, an English win appears unlikely. But Stokes bats cautiously, with his eyes focused on stumps and a new day beyond. He resumes the next morning in the same gear. As English wickets fall, and as an Australian victory draws closer, Stokes remains steadfast.
Seventy-three to win and the last man at the crease.
Now Stokes switches to T20 mode. Powerful swipes down the ground. An audacious reverse-sweep over the point fence for six. A ramp shot over first slip for another six. Fielders challenged. Fielders vanquished, as Stokes hits the ball between the boundary-riders, or over their heads.
It’s happening so quickly that heads are spinning and fingers are fumbling.
Jack Leach plays the ball from his hip with the same casual nonchalance with which he wipes his glasses. Stokes seizes on the opportunity and sprints down the pitch to tie the score. And, on the next ball, Stokes smashes a loose delivery to the cover boundary to secure England’s epic victory in the most emphatic fashion.
More primal roaring. More iconic images.
This should be the summer of Stokes. Of Ben’s benediction. Or a knighthood, at least.
But for all his gallantry and for all his artistry, his exploits will be overshadowed by the sheer dominance of an eccentric little fellow named Steve Smith.
Smith’s string of high scores is simply unprecedented. Don Bradman scored 947 runs in five Tests in 1930. But even the Don failed occasionally. He was bowled for eight in his first innings of the series at Trent Bridge and, later, he was caught for 18 in the fourth Test at Old Trafford. Sure, he accumulated a healthy heap of runs in between, but Bradman, at least, demonstrated that he was mortal.
Steve Smith, however, never fails.
He has allowed nothing to stand in between him and his demoralising decimation of the English bowling attack. Not the shame of what he allowed to happen in Cape Town. Not the total lack of recent experience in the first-class arena. Not the pantomime (and uncultured) booing which has plagued him all summer. Not even being felled by a vicious bouncer and the painful flashbacks that followed.
And certainly not the English bowlers. Or the English captain’s tactics.
Seriously, when Joe Root enlists the aid of the bogeyman to scare his children into well bred English behaviour, he’ll be invoking images of a somewhat oddly shaped man, with sandy hair, a collection of idiosyncratic tics and nervous twitches, and with elastic limbs that seem to be powered by their own electric current.
But for all his foibles, Smith has mastered the art of pragmatic batting. He does whatever it takes to score runs. It doesn’t matter what kind of contentious contortions he twists his body into. Provided he defends his wicket, he’ll do it. He’ll go down on one knee, and place the other knee behind his head – whilst waving one hand in the air – if it helps him hit the ball through the in-field.
So while Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff have had Ashes summers named after them, I fear that Ben Stokes will not be given the same honour.
For Stokes, a summer of heroics is insufficient.
Unless, at the Oval, Stokes has one last majestic spell of bowling, or one last innings overflowing with cavalier gallantry, left in him.
If England win the final Test, does a World Cup win and a drawn Test series trump losing the Ashes?
Will it be Stokes’ summer? Or will 2019 be forever remembered for Steve Smith’s sublime symphony of batsmanship?