Dubai: The similarity between two of the most superhuman efforts in England’s history of Test cricket is uncanny.
The same venue — Headingley, at the gap of 38 years apart — with the hosts down in the dumps in the crucial third Test of an Ashes series.
If the ‘Ian Botham Test’ is remembered for the way the legend turned the match on its head, after following on with an unbeaten century against Dennis Lillee & Co, Ben Stokes’ all-round effort over the last four days ranks up there.
Sir Ian Botham, the greatest all-rounder England has ever produced, led the chorus of cheerleaders for this ginger-haired left-hander from Cockermouth as ‘The Special One’, possibly secure in the thought that his successor has finally arrived after many a false dawn.
Talk of Ashes heroics and the name of a certain Andrew Flintoff will also crop up in the reckoning for the memorable 2005 triumph by Michael Vaughan’s men but for the moment — Stokes’ daring will be the talking point in the cricketing circles for a long time to come.
Botham’s unbeaten 149 in 1981, in the company of No. 10 Graham Dilley, had been the gold standard of an English Ashes performance for nearly four decades, but he himself admits that the miraculous victory would not have been possible without the help of his friend and pace warhead Bob Willis — who took eight wickets for 43 runs to carve out a sensational 18-run victory as Australia collapsed in their chase of a paltry target of 130 runs.
In his book “Botham’s Book of the Ashes”, the knighted all-rounder recalls: “When sportsmen talk about being ‘in the zone,’ this was it for Bob, he had just taken 8-43 to bring about the most sensational victory, and he could barely smile ... I have always said that there should have been two match [Man of the Match] awards in the game because we could not have done without Bob. He was simply magnificent.”
It was, of course, rare humility on Botham's part for earlier in the game, he had scalped six wickets for 95 runs in Australia's first innings and also scored a 50 to deserve every bit of his best player award.
Much to Stokes’ credit, he had no Willis to fall back on, to drive the final nail in the coffin, but only a bespectacled, balding, seven-Test-old left-arm spinner Jack Leach — who gave him company for the priceless unbroken 76-run partnership, on the last wicket.
Leach’s contribution? Perhaps the ‘most valuable one run’ ever scored in Tests, as the International Cricket Council (ICC) said in all humour on their Facebook post while Stokes’ unbeaten 135 was studded with eight audacious sixes and 11 fours.
This is the second time in one and-a-half months that the game has demanded the toughest possible test of character from the all-rounder — the last one being the ICC World Cup final against New Zealand — and Stokes has come out with flying colours on both occasions.
Yes, it will be a matter of debate to say if the 28-year-old can eventually overtake Sir Ian, but the big heart he has (Stokes bowled virtually unchanged for 24 overs between Friday-Saturday as well) certainly shows that Botham’s legacy is in very good hands.
“I’ve banged the Ben Stokes drum for a long time now and I know when other players see him they think there is something special about him.
“He is very, very valuable to cricket — not just England, he will sell the game worldwide. He should enjoy every moment. It was a really remarkable performance,” Botham said after England famously pulled off the one-wicket victory to keep the series alive.
As the picture of Stokes erupting into a roar after cutting Pat Simmons for the winning boundary was splashed big on all English newspapers, the taciturn Michael Atherton, a former England captain known for objectivity in both his columns and commentary, summed up the innings aptly: “It was a combination of all sorts of things, craft, skill, versatility and most of all, an ‘over my dead body’ attitude without which you are not a great player,” he added.
Take a bow, Ben Stokes!
— With inputs from agencies