2nd test: against Australia in Perth, 2013
18 & 120, 1-63 & 2-82 (Australia won by 150 runs)
You don’t always have to win to show that you are a winner. England’s devastating 5-0 defeat in Australia, which smashed one of their greatest teams to smithereens, had one flaming positive: it was Ben Stokes’ debut series. While the spirits of most of his seniors were being crushed, Stokes, flame-haired and feisty to the point of cliché, walked into Test cricket’s hottest kitchen and immediately lit up a few more hobs. At first, Australia scoffed at him, thinking it was just another Pom going to the slaughter. Stokes talked the talk, much of it in asterisks, walking a classically brilliant hundred in the fourth innings at the Waca. Stokes scored straight drives by the book, drew the boogeyman Mitchell Johnson over with airy authority and briefly gave England hope that they could chase down a target of 504. They didn’t, but Stokes earned something even rarer than an England Ashes victory: the enduring respect of every single person who has worn the Baggy Green.
10th Test: Against New Zealand at Lord’s 2015
92 & 101, 0-105 & 3-38 (England won by 124 runs)
A Lord’s Test for the Gods, when England overcame a huge deficit to beat a New Zealand team playing Bazball, years before the word existed, was the first revelation of Stokes as the reckless match winner. A dashing 92 on the first day helped England recover from 30 for four to reach 389. They still trailed by 134 in the first innings, but Stokes’ thrilling 85-ball century – the fastest at Lord’s, and the first of countless JFK moments during his Test career – changed the atmosphere of the match and the national attitude towards a team that had spent much of the last two years in the doghouse. On a feel-good final day, Stokes dismissed Kane Williamson, the man most likely to save the game, and Brendon McCullum, the man most likely to win, with successive deliveries. It wouldn’t be the last time he seized both the moment and the match.
55th Test: vs Australia at Headingley, 2019
8 & 135*, 1-45 & 3-56 (England won by one wicket)
Nietzsche would have liked Ben Stokes. He has consistently found both strength and growth in adversity. The trial in Bristol made him a wiser, slightly weary man; the death of his father, Ged, gave Stokes a perspective and a professional mentality that would make him a gazillionaire if he could bottle it. And Carlos Brathwaite’s four sixes that won the 2016 World T20 final shaped Stokes rather than defining him. Not with the ball – he has hardly bowled to the death since – but as a batsman. Experience taught Stokes that if you read a game deeply enough, the unthinkable can happen. He soon realized that nerve-wracking finishes sparked something in him: a challenging virtuosity beyond his fellow immortals, let alone mere mortals. Six weeks after a unique miracle in the 2019 World Cup final, Stokes produced another to keep the Ashes alive at Headingley. No innings in Test history has seen such a rise. Stokes scored three runs from his first 73 balls, 58 from the next 104 and 74 from the last 42 – including seven lusty yet bright sixes – in a bromance-sparking partnership of 76 with Jack Leach. Before walking on the water, Stokes carried it with a spell of 24.2 overs broken only by four deliveries from Jofra Archer. Stokes’ marathon was born of masochism, perhaps a little martyrdom and almost certainly a lot of self-flagellation after a bad shot in the first innings. Stokes took three for 56 to ensure England’s victory target was almost impossible.
61st Test: against South Africa in Cape Town, 2020
47 & 72, 0-34 & 3-35 (England won by 189 runs)
Judging Stokes based on statistics is as misleading as trying to quantify love. In the 2020 Cape Town Test, he was the third highest run-scorer and fourth highest wicket-taker; he was also the undisputed player of the match. There have been many more spectacular performances, not least a computer game 258 at the same ground in 2016 – but England continued to draw that game so what was the point. Four years later, Stokes’ selfless, barnstorming 72 from 47 balls made a statement, while Dom Sibley could also make a maiden Test century without leaving his comfort zone. A day later, in the final hour of the match, Stokes wanted the last three wickets to square the series. Stokes lives for the final act, when everything is on the line, and it is hard to believe that an English player has decided so many matches when time, runs or wickets were about to run out. There is one Stokes statistic that seems relevant. In England’s first innings Test wins he averaged 39 with the bat and 30 with the ball, not much better than his career record. In the second innings his averages are 48 and 21. It’s not quite the meaning of love for England fans, but it does speak to some of their fondest memories.
87th Test: vs Pakistan in Rawalpindi, 2022
41 & 0, 0-35 & 1-69 (England won by 74 runs)
Stokes should have been player of the match in this match too, and he played with bat or ball. England’s astonishing stoppage-time victory, on a pitch so flat it could have drawn a timeless Test, was the ultimate demonstration of Stokes’ tactical brilliance and relentless positivity. Nasser Hussain called it the best five days of captaincy he had ever seen. There were 1,768 runs in the match, a record for a test with a positive result. Virus-ravaged England scored a whopping 506 of those on the first day in just 75 overs; it was Bazball on metaphorical steroids. On the field, Stokes trusted every suspicion and rejected every norm. His wicket-taking tricks included an umbrella pitch, preferring leg slip to orthodox and dismissing the new ball. He did not let the match drift or rest his brain for a single throw. By the time Jack Leach – a naturally cautious spinner who had emerged as a wicket-taker under Stokes – won the match with barely minutes to go, England had eight men and the wicketkeeper around the bat.