or as long Ben Stokes is around, Australia’s head coach Andrew McDonald had admitted this week, you never feel in control. For as long as Ben Stokes is around, England’s Moeen Ali agreed, you always have a chance.
Five-down and still 90 runs from victory, though, what about without him?
In 2019, the Ashes left Headingley well and truly alive thanks, to quote the famous commentary, to one cricketer. Four years on, they do likewise, with gratitude to a few.
To Harry Brook, whose 75 as every other specialist bat faltered represented an Ashes coming of age. To Chris Woakes, who stuck with him in a crucial partnership when a chase of 251 might have crumbled. And to Mark Wood, who struck lusty blows to make a carnival of what ought to have been a behind-the-sofa finish, steering England home by three wickets and halving the series deficit to 2-1.
Woakes crashed the winning runs through the off-side, just as Stokes had to seal the last Ashes Test on this ground, while Wood claimed man-of-the-match honours, starting the contest with five-for to show for a thunderously quick spell and finishing it heaving sixes and cover-driving for four.
The key, though, was Brook, he of four hundreds in a breakout winter but yet to stamp his mark on a rivalry that elevates like no other. The 24-year-old played the contradictory role of aggressive anchor to near-perfection, steering England from 93 for three when he arrived at the crease to within 21 runs of victory by the time he fell, benefitting from a rejigged lineup and a return to No5.
On successive evenings here at Headingley, England players warned they could not be solely reliant on Stokes to do it all when it came to this chase, one assumes, with the thought that the 224 runs still required this morning might be knocked off without the skipper being called from the dressing room. That, though, would have meant a conclusion – and indeed, a day’s play – out of kilter with these Ashes’ see-saw addiction and, sure enough, no cake-walk ensued, Mitchell Starc superb in taking five wickets that kept home nerves on edge.
Conditions have favoured the hosts with almost unnerving obedience at times during this series, but the deluge that fell on Headingley at the end of play yesterday put some stodge into an outfield that had been whisking the ball to the fence like a police escort across the first three days. Zak Crawley, in particular, began the day running a fine line in grand shots for one or even none that would have had the Western Terrace hailing boundaries earlier in the match. Typically, when the opener did cream a beauty through cover off Mitchell Marsh, he was out trying to replicate it next ball, gone for 44 having yet again lulled the gullible into belief that he might kick on to a match-defining score.
Crawley was the third of England’s top four to depart, Ben Duckett and a promoted Moeen Ali each having succumbed already to Starc, but where his swift about-face from promise to downfall was utterly in keeping with the trend of his career, Joe Root’s skittish innings was uncharacteristic, the former captain slashing wildly at Starc’s first delivery well outside off-stump and edging just shy of slip. His final demise, though, was as predictable as Crawley’s, Cummins claiming the wicket of England’s best batter for the 11th time in 18 innings, and third in a row in this series.
At lunch, there was little sense of panic. Why would there be, with Stokes still around? Inside two overs, however, it set in, the man hailed as superhuman victim of the dismissal that makes even the greats feel mortal, out strangled down the leg-side.
So, now what? The optimist might have seen a stage set perfectly for Bairstow’s redemption, his doziness at Lord’s more to blame for England’s failed chase than any Australian immorality. Anyone who has observed his wicketkeeping here, though, could see a player that looks frazzled, perhaps too hyped by the short turnaround between controversy in the capital and an instant shot at retribution on his home ground.
On then, to England’s last pair before the tail, their bombastic, belligerent young star slightly dimmed in this series and their Mr Almost-Too-Dependable, overlooked until now.
Woakes was determined to seize some of the burden, lucky and good in equal measure as several edges teased and plonked safe. That the pursuit did not demand a century from Brook was credit to his partner, but the onus was still on the local lad, who pulled a tracer-bullet to the boundary to take the ask below 40.
When it came back, Cummins tried in vain to get the ball changed, the first signs of Australian desperation. Marnus Labuschagne’s fumble of another rocket told of pressure starting to tell. When, with 30 left, 22-year-old spinner Todd Murphy was called on for only his second over of the day, it felt a Hail Mary. When he began with a no-ball and was then despatched by Brook, the game felt up.
Not quite. With the line in sight, Brook stumbled, skying high off Starc, who nearly bulldozed his captain as both went for the catch, the fear that Australia might yet again be quickest to recognise a door swinging ajar.
This time, Woakes and Wood – neither veterans of defeat at Lord’s and Edgbaston – slammed it shut.