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What mattered in the end was what he’d done at the beginning. Ben Stokes had needed to see out the day, to make it through the late English Summer twilight. To make sure he survived Saturday, to give England the chance of saving an impossible Test match, he firstly needed to buy himself some time.
To give himself the mental and physical space for the onslaught which would come. But all in good time.
It’s rarely since Spassky versus Fischer that inaction has been so compelling. That the silences of a bowler’s run-up have been so meaningful and pointed, before the ball passes safely past the stumps again. Somehow. Pressure was buildng inexorably, palpably, like a submarine plunging to unknown depths.
But Stokes knew what he was doing.
McCoy Tyner once said of John Coltrane, and his tutelage under the great Thelonius Monk,
“His concept of space alone was one of the most important things… when to lay out and let somebody else fill up that space, or just leave the space open.”
His safety on Saturday evening as the twilight approached, his caution – all so out of character for a man stereotyped by his easily aggrieved temper – would buy him the space to cut loose later on.
On 77 runs from 189 balls he hit a reverse sweep at a near perfect right-angle over square leg for six. He was falling backwards, his balance all wrong, but that’s the thing with improvisation.
Its imperfections make it the most beautiful thing in the world. And he hit that ball harder than anything. It was biblical. He smote it.
I once told my kids they can do anything they want in their lives. That where they come from doesn’t matter. This was before Boris Johnson was made Prime minister of the UK, of course. I stopped telling them after that for a while, what was the point?
As cricket had gone the same way, somehow. It was run as a self-serving private club, for the benefit of their own glory and their own wallets. When Alistair Cook was described as being “from the right kind of family” to be captain of the England cricket team it summed the whole sorry circus up.
But Ben Stokes has changed all that. An ugly man, with a bad temper and a red velcro beard played one of the the most astonishing test match innings of my lifetime. I’ll tell my kids when they get home from kindergarten once again.
For the first time in ages, I’ll tell them they can do anything they put their minds to. Ben Stokes told me, I’ll say. He showed me. If you’re brave enough, and you buy yourself a bit of space and time, anyone can.