Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

Was Ben Stokes' Headingley Ashes century the greatest Test innings of all time?

The Englishman's unbeaten 135 to win the third Test against Australia was reminiscent of the us-against-them, have-a-go heroism of Perera, Lara, Atherton and Botham

So, was it really the greatest Test innings ever played?

Recency bias would have Ben Stokes’ comic-book heroism against Australia in the Miracle of Headingley II straight in at No 1.

Sober analysis of such an epic effort will take some time yet, given the consequences that might still follow.

Its importance centred on the fact it kept England alive in the Ashes. With two matches still to play, at Old Trafford and The Oval, Stokes has given England a chance.

It did have everything. Physical bravery, like when he was hit on the helmet by Josh Hazlewood, with the stem guard bursting into two, its parts landing on either side of the wicket.

It was the first time Stokes had worn that additional safety measure, which affixes to the back of the helmet, in a Test match, after the injury that befell Steve Smith in the game before at Lord’s.

There was emotional courage - clearly of the thing in its entirety, but also in failing to be distracted by the little subplots. He celebrated neither his 50 nor 100 – there was a game to win, you know – and carried on his merry way despite the mix-up with Jos Buttler that could have been terminal.

There was the virtuoso’s range he exhibited. At the start, he was on an uncharacteristic go-slow, three runs from his first 70 balls. Because the situation then dictated that, if he needed to bat for two-and-a-bit days to save the game, that is what he would do.

Then, the counter-punch, in concert with Jonny Bairstow. Stokes was even happy to play second fiddle to his partner as England hit back on the fourth morning, in a run-spree against the second new ball.

By the end, as his partners came and went and he was left with just Jack Leach – doing his best to demist his windscreen at the other end - he was in full Stokesian, Champagne Super Over, white-ball mode. At least until the target was single figures, at which point he says he didn’t know what to do.

Sixes landed just far enough over flailing hands. There was the phenomenal do-we-call-it-a-switch-hit-reverse-sweep-oh-whatever-it-was-just-glorious six off Nathan Lyon, into the baying mob on the Western Terrace.

It was perfection. And all that, after an indefatigable effort with the ball that had kept Australia (only just) within touching distance.

But others have touched perfection, too – so how to grade them?

Now is maybe not the time to suggest it, but Stokes’ effort might not even have been the greatest of this year, let alone history.

Back in February, Kusal Perera made 153 not out to win an equally unwinnable Test for a beleaguered Sri Lanka side against a South African attack featuring Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn and an in-form Duanne Olivier - on away territory, too.

Sri Lanka were easy-beats. Their opponents, fearsome. Yet he did it. Somehow.

Perera’s personal haul was slightly higher than Stokes’ against Australia. And his last-wicket stand of 78 with Vishwa Fernando is the only one higher than that shared by Stokes and Leach to win a Test in history. So was it better?

Further back, but still within relatively recent memory, consider that of Brian Lara. Before this year, his 153 not out to beat Australia by one wicket in 1999 was often cited by most judges as being Test cricket’s greatest knock.

It was a glorious moment of resistance within a side in rapid decline, against an attack including Shane Warne (second in the list of all-time leading Test wicket-takers), Glenn McGrath (fifth in the same list) and Jason Gillespie.

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England v Australia player ratings

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In 2001, Wisden produced its own list where it attempted to objectively rate the best Test innings. The only one above Lara’s at that point was Don Bradman’s 270 for Australia to win the Melbourne Ashes Test of 1936-37.

What about the greatest by an England player? Stokes’ marvel has a fair claim.

A recent readers’ poll by an English cricket magazine had Michael Atherton’s backs-to-the-wall 185 not out to save the Johannesburg Test of 1995-96 as No 1.

That 643-minute marathon belongs to a different genre than that of the Stokes run-chase. Atherton himself, typically self-effacing, preferred to point to Graham Gooch’s 154 not out against West Indies at Headingley in 1991 as the best he had seen. Again, different genre, different challenges, different achievement.

What is it about Headingley? More specially, Headingley, champion all-rounders, and The Ashes?

In terms of us-against-them, have-a-go heroism, Stokes on Sunday was most similar to the epochal 1981 knock of 149 not out by Ian Botham.

Nearly 40 years on, Botham’s Ashes are still spoken about. Whether this week trumped it, perhaps only time will tell.

What is certain is the Summer of Stokes will be talked about down the ages, too.

Updated: August 26, 2019 12:57 PM

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