There comes a point on every Ashes tour when even the most ardent England fan has to ask whether the cricket is worth getting out of bed for. It’s a complex set of calculations in which you have to weigh the score in the series and the state of the game, the likelihood of the team being humiliated again, the ambient temperature of the bedroom, the distance to the TV set, the hour and whatever you’ve got on the next day. Exhaustion multiplied by dejection divided by hope. Whatever the answer is, it absolutely isn’t 36 for four off 21.5 overs, 3-0 down in the series, 380 runs behind in the match, at three in the morning.
That’s the time to make like the team have been, and roll over.
And then Pat Cummins overstepped. It was his first called no-ball of the series. He missed his length and Ben Stokes smacked the ball back for four down the ground. That ended a stretch in which England, lost in the doldrums, had scored one run off 76 balls. Two balls later, he pulled four more, through square leg. It was the first twitch of resistance, the throbbing vein on the forehead of a man who, like all the rest of us, has had just about enough. In the next Cummins over, Stokes was nearly caught-and-bowled. In the over after that, Jonny Bairstow was almost caught at slip. And then something truly extraordinary happened.
Cameron Green, bowling from around the wicket, fooled Stokes into shouldering his bat to a delivery that slanted in and hit his off-stump. But the bail barely moved, and the ball carried on through to the keeper. Stokes has never come across as a devout sort, but this freakish bit of good fortune felt like a sign of divine intervention, a finger on the scale, a thumb on the bail. All the luck England had missed in the first three Tests served up to him in one dollop. He grinned. And like all good God-fearing men came to the obvious conclusion that, today, at least, providence was with him. So fuck it. He uppercut Green over the slips, then clipped him through midwicket.
Something was stirring. You could feel it. We’ve seen too little of this Stokes lately, while he has been labouring away on his best impression of a prim and proper top-order batsman, block, block, block. This was the Stokes who clears bars and empties beds. It was time to dash to the living room.
In the next over Green smacked Stokes hard on the bottom hand. He was already in obvious pain, grimacing because of his side strain, but the wounds only seemed to harden him, as if battle had sharpened his instincts. Sometimes it happens like that. They always said Gordon Greenidge was more dangerous on one leg.
Cummins brought on Mitchell Starc. Stokes hit him for one four through long-on, another through long-off, and another through midwicket. He came out of his crease to play Scott Boland, drove him hard through cover for four, and whipped him to square leg for three, a shot that brought up his fifty, England’s sixth of the tour, and the first by anyone other than Joe Root and Dawid Malan. And where he went, Bairstow followed. Early in his innings you could almost see Bairstow sheltering in his lee, he had four from his first 18 balls, 17 from his first 46, but as Stokes’ confidence grew, Bairstow’s did too.
By the time Stokes was closing on his fifty, Bairstow was, for the first time in years, back batting at his best in a Test match. The muddled and messy player who has spent the past two years scratching around, in and out of the team, had turned back into the crisp, bristling batsman who looked so good when he scored all those runs and set all those records, in 2016. It was a masterful innings, especially in the way he cut and swept Nathan Lyon, and expertly measured. He accelerated his pace after he passed fifty and slowed again as he neared his hundred.
There are all sorts of ways to talk about Bairstow’s innings, you could look at the data, which showed how he had doggedly blocked everything the seamers bowled him around the top of off, or the technique, and the way in which he switched his guard after he had passed fifty so was finally able to marry his white ball game with the demands of Test cricket. But Bairstow chose to frame it in terms of the character he showed, especially after, like Stokes, he was wounded by a vicious blow that did serious damage to his bottom hand.
“It’s about gritting your teeth and getting stuck in,” he said. “You’ve got to dig deep, these are the times you look at yourself and say: ‘What am I about and where do I come from? What’s the bit in the tank that keeps you coming back?’ I’d like to think that in 20 years’ time when I’m sat over a pint they’re the moments I’d like to look back on, and say: ‘When did you stand up? When did you front up for the other 10 blokes in the dressing room?’”
There are lessons there, for the other batsmen in the team, yes, but for the management, too. Character isn’t a question of scheduling, or “systemic change”, it comes from the culture of the team, which comes, in turn, from the leadership.
There was a ringing clarity about the way Stokes and Bairstow played, what they wanted to do and how they planned to do it, which was at complete odds with the confusion that has dogged England’s Test team, and their own careers, for the past few years. England have still lost the Ashes. England are still losing this game. But they showed they’re still worth getting up for and gave a glimpse of how they might move forward, too.