Ben Stokes plays the protagonist to perfection in an English cricket summer for the ages

Amer Malik 22:02 05/10/2019
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England's man of the summer.

The England cricket season of 2019 has been one of the most spectacular in recent memory. The cricket has been phenomenal from all involved, starting with a five-game ODI series with Pakistan to a five-Test Ashes battle against Australia – with the small matter of a World Cup thrown in for good measure.

The season started on a hint of sleepy subtleness with the county four-day championship and the Royal London cup, the latter of which was to be the last in its current form. This was also to be the last time the final was to be held at Lord’s – and a most enjoyable final it was, as if making some opinionated stand against its cricketing downgrade. Somerset took the cup, and perpetual run maker James Hildreth made an unbeaten 72.

This will now be replaced by the ECB’s newly fashioned “Hundred” – the rules of which would confuse a NASA astrophysicist: 100 balls are delivered in blocks of 10, with each bowler allowed a maximum of 20 balls, which could be bowled in a block of five or – for the daring – a block of 10. Not too healthy if you’re a relentless no-baller.

The international season kicked off with five ODI’s against Pakistan, who appear to have made England their unsanctioned third home after the UAE – having toured here every year since 2016, and they are back here from July 2020. The first ODI at the Oval was a stop-start affair, mostly the former. Wintry weather ended proceedings quite conclusively, but in the 19 overs that were bowled, Jofra Archer showed just why England had him fast tracked into the national team, persistently squaring up Pakistan’s opening batsmen with deliveries in excess of 90mph, and that with swing. After that, it would have been inconceivable for this man not to play in the impending World cup.

Jofra Archer.

Jofra Archer.

England pounded Pakistan 4-0 but in a high-scoring series, the hosts reaching 300+ in each completed game, and the visitors surpassing that landmark apart from in the last game when they fell 3 short.

This, after some warm-up games, led us into the World Cup, held in England after an absence of 20 years.

Favorites as the top-ranked side in the ODI format, England started off the proceedings with a thumping 104-run win over South Africa. But they did suffer a few hiccups during the course of the tournament, at one point facing the threat of elimination. The other sides who made it to the semi-finals were New Zealand, Australia and India. Pakistan finished in fifth place, an initial loss to West Indies not helping their cause, nor their run rate further into the tournament.

South Africa, another side that always seem to do well in big tournaments – until they reach the semi-finals, lost their first three matches, with the fourth being called off due to rain. Not much they could do to recover from that start. Afghanistan, gave some of the big boys a run for their money in some close games, though not winning any games in the tournament.

India meanwhile broke the hearts of its billion passionate fans by losing to those cunning Kiwis by 18 runs. With a hint of arrogance-cum-optimism, a large chunk of their fans had purchased the majority of the tickets for the final, leaving the ICC a busy few days trying to resell unwanted tickets. Some were off loaded via EBay and some on the black-market were being touted for up to £16,000!

Kiwis stun India.

Kiwis stun India.

England had comfortably beaten Australia in the second semi – by eight wickets and joined New Zealand, another of the fancied teams, at Lord’s for finals day. A slightly grey and cloudy morning gave the home of cricket a subdued festival atmosphere, with an RAF parachute troop jumping into the ground. Some people would do anything to watch the game.

Now, that game. It started off slowly enough, with New Zealand batting first compiling 241-8, an easy task for England one would think, in home conditions and with their batsmen consistently scoring over 300 runs, and a below par total. Yeah, well, wrong on all accounts. What came was one of the most outrageous passage of play ever witnessed in cricket, let alone a World Cup final. Into the last over and England required 15 to win, with Ben Stokes on strike. The first two deliveries from Trent Boult were dot balls. The third a six.

What happened next even Nostradamus wouldn’t have seen coming. Stokes, diving full length to complete a second run, had a throw from the outfield ricochet off of his bat and the ball went to the boundary. That got counted as six by the umpires and scorers. England now only needed three runs for victory. They made two, tying the game and sending the players into a Super Over – six balls apiece. Incredibly, inevitably, both teams scored 14 but England won from hitting the higher number of boundaries, 24 to New Zealand’s 16.

With the World Cup now nothing but a dreamy distant memory, the action reverted back to the longer format. Time to resume cricket’s oldest rivalry: the Ashes.

Australia comfortably won the first Test, England losing the perennial Jimmy Anderson to a recurrence of a calf injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the series. David Warner and Steve Smith were also making their Test returns, Smith basically starting off where he left off, by scoring a century in each innings.

The second Test switched to Lord’s. Jofra Archer came in for Anderson – and again he produced a compelling passage of play that left everyone gasping for breath. Words just don’t do it justice. On the Saturday afternoon, Archer was bombarding Smith with a barrage of hostile 90mph+ bowling, first hitting him on the forearm, then a few overs later the batsman took a sickening blow to the back of the head.

Smith was down on the ground and new concussion rules came into play so he had to go off, though eagerly coming back on shortly after the fall of a wicket, still perceptibly woozy and confused. He was ruled out for the next Test as the concussion protocol stipulated no play within seven days of being hit. With the third Test at Headingly only a few days away, that worked in England’s favor.

Stokes (15)

That game belonged to one man, and one man only: Ben Stokes. After his heroics in the World Cup final, now it was time to show us how good a Test batsman he was. To cut a long story short, this was one of the most thrilling and entertaining matches ever seen. Yes, I’ve said that about another game already, but what can you do?

Stokes with the help of tailender Jack Leach, chased down an impossible target of 359 after England had been bowled out for 67 in the first innings! The greatest knock Stokes had played since his last amazing knock, in the final a month before. There was no stopping this man, Australia missed chances to finish off the game and effectively keep the Ashes, but the overwhelming pressure was even starting to affect them. Perhaps they can look on the bright side and think at least people might go on less about the Botham Headingley Test of 1981 now.

Smith returned for the last two Tests, helping Australia finally retain the Ashes after scoring more runs at Old Trafford, though Warner’s poor series continued, out to Broad seven times. England with nothing to play for but pride at the Oval were able to snatch a consolation victory – leading to the first drawn Ashes series since 1972.

Smith made a total of 774 runs in the series, and that after missing a game! A true cricketing enigma.  At the start of the series, his every appearance triggered catcalls as fallout from Sandpapergate. By the end, the English crowds were still booing, but they were doing it while simultaneously giving him standing ovations.

For England, apart from Stokes – who is surely odds-on favorite to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year – the talk of the summer was Jofra Archer, who took two five-wicket hauls, constantly hitting the mid 90’s with accurate swing bowling.

Generally some feared with justification that England Test players weren’t playing enough of the four-day variety of cricket for their respective counties, hence the Test side suffering for it.

T20 finals day produced a final between last year’s winners Worcestershire and first-time finalists Essex. The latter took the trophy in a spin-dominated final – off the final ball, what else, keeping their hopes of a domestic double alive as the chased the Country Championship.

Essex played everyone’s favourite other team Somerset in the climax of the county season a few days later – Essex most likely to take the title, but Somerset within spitting distance. Then it rained. Session after session was lost and when the two teams finally got onto the field at Taunton it looked like Essex just needed to bat out time to crown their year.

They collapsed for 141. Take a bow England tailender Leach, this time getting the plaudits for his full-time job, took 5 spin wickets.  Somerset forfeited their second innings leaving them the unlikely fairy-tale target of trying to bowl out Essex for 62. Could they? Former England opener Marcus Trescothick, in his last game in his season, came out to field in the slips.  Could it happen? For once this year, no.

It has, without a doubt, been the most enthralling and dramatic season ever. One would have to wait a generation to see anything such as this.

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