Ben Stokes's an artist at Headingley again

For a change, Stokes wasn't the one doing it for England in the middle. He instead sat back in the dressing room balcony and doodled his favourite characters from Dragon Ball Z
For a change, Stokes wasn't the one doing it for England in the middle. He instead sat back in the dressing room balcony and doodled his favourite characters from Dragon Ball Z ©Getty

As a child, Ben Stokes used to draw characters from Dragon Ball Z whenever he was a tad anxious or a bit nervous. On the fourth day of the third Ashes Test in Headingley, Ben Stokes was drawing characters from Dragon Ball Z, now as captain of the England Test team. He was nervous. He was anxious. And as Harry Brook and Chris Woakes took their team closer to the target, he was sat on the England balcony doodling away on an upturned page from a crossword puzzle book.

By the end, Stokes had drawn up the faces of pretty much every major character from Dragon Ball Z. In fact, he'd run out of space on the page. So instead, he resorted to walking around the dressing-room, unable to get himself to see the finishing moments of his team's dramatic victory that has kept the Ashes alive.

The Ben Stokes story is a bit like that of the lead character of his favourite Japanese anime show, which he reveals to have seen a lot of while growing up. He too has after all assembled a group of 'selfless teammates' - as he puts it - to take on the world and defend the ideology that he's built alongside Brendon McCullum.

But for once, he wasn't in the starring role. He wasn't the one leading the charge like a man possessed against the force of Australia. He wasn't the one pulling off another Headingley heist. He wasn't the one in the forefront of a famous evening for English cricket in Leeds.

It was instead powered by a youngster, who's embodied every bit of England's brave new approach from the moment he jumped on board, and a much-loved veteran, who was getting his first taste of it. But observing Stokes during those nervy 45 minutes or so in a strange way also humanised England's new world order of cricket.

Stokes immersed himself in some doodling as his nerves jangled in the middle of a tight finish
Stokes immersed himself in some doodling as his nerves jangled in the middle of a tight finish ©Cricbuzz

It added more emotion to it. It added more depth as well. For, it's been difficult at times to separate the element of bravado and machismo that comes through in a lot of statements made by this England team from their actual will and desire to win matches. It would be foolish, of course, to assume that a team led by Ben Stokes doesn't always step on to the field each time to win. Even if a lot of the chatter from his camp is about wanting to entertain and reinvent. But as the match got closer and closer on Sunday (July 9), it became very evident that getting over the line in a Test means as much to this team than any that's come before them. And as it turns out, it makes their captain as nervous as any who's come before him.

It wasn't just the English dressing-room that was seeped in tension and a bit of dread. You could sense it all around Headingley, on and off the field. Having started the day needed 224 to win with all 10 wickets intact, this was the home team's win or lose. As Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett commenced proceedings with a bunch of straightforward singles to the deep fielders set by Australia, you realised that it was the kind of day where every run would get cheered with the same vigour as the last and the next. It was the kind of day you knew Australia would make England work very hard for the victory, even if at times their fields did allow the batters to get off strike easier than they'd have expected to. It was the kind of day you also knew, in keeping very much with the theme of the series, that there would be multiple twists and turns before the final outcome was arrived at.

This wasn't a clash of cultures like we've heard often enough during this series. This was traditional Test cricket at its finest, even if England did score at over 5-an-over. Even if England kept their word of chasing down 251 in exactly 50 overs. This was an arm wrestle more than a heavyweight boxing bout, where every time you felt one team had pulled ahead, the other yanked their way right back.

The first session couldn't have summed up the evenness between the teams better. It ended with England having scored the number of runs (126) they'd have desired and with Australia taking the number of wickets (4) that they'd have expected and accepted. England's game still. Australia not out of it yet.

As a kid, Stokes used to draw characters from Dragon Ball Z whenever he was nervous
As a kid, Stokes used to draw characters from Dragon Ball Z whenever he was nervous ©Getty

Mitchell Starc had missed out on playing the Leeds Test from four years ago. He had to be content with watching on from the dressing-room as Stokes took his fellow fast bowlers down that time around. Here, it was the left-arm fast bowler who kept bringing Australia back into the contest every time the hosts looked to be nudging ahead. He had done so by taking out Duckett and Moeen Ali, who'd volunteered to bat at No 3 for his team's sake, in quick succession. And it was when he provided another double breakthrough by having Stokes strangled down the leg-side and Jonny Bairstow bowled through the gate to his second ordinary shot in the match, that Australia for once looked to have gone ahead in the match.

It's also around the time Stokes settled down with a pen and paper. It was also when the Headingley crowd began willing Brook and Woakes before, during and after every delivery they faced from the Aussies, now with a spring in their stride.

Brook has had an interesting series to date. He looked well at ease on the slow surface at Edgbaston, was rattled by the short ball ploy from Australia at Lord's and then got spooked by Pat Cummins on two straight occasions.

He'd seen three of his senior colleagues come and go as he tried getting his rhythm going; and with only Woakes and the bowlers for company, he had no choice but to temper his aggression. That he would do just that to such an impressive extent told you why he's being looked at as the brightest talent currently in England. Never did he look to take a backward step though, and he kept finding the boundary every time the bowler erred even slightly in length or line. A couple of times he even managed to pierce the very minor gaps behind square on the leg-side to the kind of bouncers that had shaken him up a week ago at Lord's. This was Brook's coming of age while at the other end Woakes was displaying the battle-hardened maturity and temperament of someone his age at this level.

You knew there'd be a final twist though, and that came in the form of Brook finally attempting an untoward shot and getting out with 21 still required. It's when Stokes decided to leave his table and turn his back to the action, as Mark Wood, the man who'd set up this Test match for his country with bat and ball, jogged out to bat. You just knew it wouldn't be the same if he didn't have the spotlight on him in the climax.

By now, everyone around Headingley was on the edge. Some kept moving to keep their nerves in check. Others didn't move at all. But nobody except the England captain took their eyes off the cricket.

Every run was cheered with even more ferocity than before. Late in the day, a wide ball from Starc received such a roaring ovation that you'd have thought they'd won the Ashes already. It wasn't until Wood got a top-edge to a bouncer from Cummins, the ball flying over long-leg, that the English fans started believing again in the miracle of saving the Ashes.

The final scene of this latest epic, with Woakes slaying the ball through the off-side and the Western Terraces jumping to their feet in unison in the background was all too familiar with what we'd witnessed here four years ago. But there was a difference though. Stokes wasn't in the middle of Headingley raising his hands aloft. He was instead wandering around anxiously at the back of the dressing-room at Headingley after he was done revisiting his childhood and reconnecting with the child within. It was that kind of day.



Move to top