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BEN STOKES produced his second “once-in-a-lifetime” performance of the summer today 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.
Stokes called his stunning innings “unbelievable” as England claimed a most remarkable one-wicket victory over Australia to level the Ashes series at 1-1.
England, bowled out for just 67 in the first innings, appeared to be facing certain defeat after being reduced to 286 for nine chasing 359, but Stokes’s unbeaten 135 saw them take a superb victory.
“Unbelievable,” Stokes said. “It’s one I’ll never forget.
“I’ve got to try and take it all in. I’m not sure it’ll ever happen again. It’s one of the two best feelings I’ve ever felt on a cricket pitch.
“Just never give up. It’s not over until it’s over. When [Jack] Leachy came in it was pretty clear what had to be done. It was five and one. I’ll take five [deliveries], you take one.
“But he’s done it before, he’s a super nightwatchman, knowing what he had to do. I couldn’t watch in the end I was just waiting to see what happened.
“I think when it got down to the thirties I was thinking, ‘rein it in a little,’ but when it was in the sixties, seventies, fifties I had to really try and I sort of got in the zone.
“We had to win this game to stay in the Ashes and we managed to do it,” Stokes added.
“We’ve got to move on now. We’ve managed to keep our hopes alive of doing the double and we can take a lot of momentum.
“It’s nice to get a break now and recharge the batteries and hopefully hit the ground running again in Manchester.”
Teammate Joe Root called Stokes’s display “outrageous.”
“We said at the start of the day: ‘We just have to believe’ and while two people are alive and breathing, we have a chance,” he said.
“We’ve seen some freakish things already this summer in the World Cup but I didn’t think we’d see something similar in this series.
“It was an incredible game of cricket, an incredible atmosphere and Test cricket is alive and kicking. This Ashes is alive and kicking.”
Asked about Stokes’s display, he said: “That was just incredible. To try and sum that up in words is pretty much impossible. Outrageous batting.”
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