Let’s face it – 2019 has seen two of the best test digs of all time.
The more recent was that of Ben Stokes – the Headingley hero. 134 not out in a fourth innings knock that almost single-handedly won England the third test of the 2019 Ashes series. Facing an Australian attack with the likes of Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson, Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins, Stokes absorbed the pressure of the situation like nothing I had ever seen before.
Backtrack to February 2019 – South Africa, Durban. A Sri Lankan side in as much trouble as Eric Moussambani in an Olympic swimming pool. Somehow, a 5’6″ Sri Lankan became the biggest man on the ground and in world cricket. 153 not out- what a knock it was from Kusal Perera.
Cricket experts and pundits alike have been reveling in the brilliance of Stokes this week with claims that his fourth innings knock at Headingley is not only the best Ashes inning of all time but the best test innings of all time.
It might not even be the best dig this year.
As day three of the 2019 Headingley Ashes test came to a close, Ben Stokes was 2* off 60 balls. He had two more days to reach the target set by the Aussies of 359. They had just been bowled out for 67 and weren’t batting to win, but to survive.
He and the England Captain Joe Root came to the crease on day four ready for the Aussie barrage – one that opened with a Hazlewood bouncer that turned Stokes’ helmet into shrapnel.
His captain fell and his mate Bairstow soon followed. Jos Buttler caught-up on some Leeds sunshine before being run out. Stokes had bowled 24 overs the day before and now it was up to him to save England from losing not just the Test match but the Ashes.
He reached his 50 off 152 deliveries. Slow, methodical and no aggression. It was not a Ben Stokes we were used to yet it was a man who somehow couldn’t be dismissed.
His teammates continued to collapse around him – Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad. The English were 9/286 and needed a 73 run final wicket partnership with Jack Leach, a man who paid more attention to the fog on his glasses then his craft with the blade, at the crease.
Yet, amongst the rubble that was the England middle and lower order stood that tatted, fiery-redhead Stokes.
Lyon was given the job to bowl to Stokes. He was met with a crack. Then a roar. Then a signal for six runs.
He stepped up again- Crack. Roar. Six runs.
Momentum had shifted to Stokes’ hand. He was playing with an exuberant amount of confidence and he let the Aussies know. Lyon stepped to his mark as Stokes changed his. Switch-hit; Six.
Australia decided to bring their highest ranked bowler in Cummins into the attack. Stokes answers that with a scoop shot; Six.
A pull-shot off Hazlewood saw Stokes hit triple figures, and the Leeds crowd began to find some serious vibe. At this point, England still needed 33 to win.
Stokes hit two more sixes. Matthew Wade and Marcus Harris were fingertips away as the duke sailed over them and over the rope. Suddenly England only need eight runs to win this test match. You just couldn’t believe it.
Lyon’s turn again. Crack. Mid-off on the rope…Six.
Two runs required, Stokes reverse sweeps to a fielder at backward point. Jack Leach is halfway down the pitch. This is it. The Aussies couldn’t possibly stuff up this chance. The ball is thrown to Lyon. Leach is two-metres from home.
There’s a fumble. The bails stay still.
Lyon goes again. Stokes sweeps again. It’s Plum. Tim Paine screams with every inch of his body. The concrete expression of umpire Joel Wilson greets the screaming Aussies before those harrowing words; Not out.
Jack Leach hit a quick single to level the scores as Paine brought his XI inside the arc. There would be no singles. Pat Cummins steamed up to Ben Stokes and delivered with an almighty grunt.
Crack. Roar. England win.
Knighthood for Ben Stokes!
Most courageous & heroic performance I have ever seen. Completely extraordinary #Ashes19
— Zac Goldsmith (@ZacGoldsmith) August 25, 2019
Congrats on an amazing bowling spell to keep your team in the game @benstokes38 & then one of the best innings in the history of the game ! Test cricket is the best & I love it. ❤️So happy for you mate – well done !!!! 👋👋✔️✔️👍👍
— Shane Warne (@ShaneWarne) August 26, 2019
It’s an amazing innings. With T20 changing the way many players bat, Stokes showed that in doesn’t hurt to dig in during a Test match. How special it was for England on their ground in front of their fans against their bitter rivals.
This is where Kusal Perera’s knock differs.
Perera stepped to the crease with his Sri Lankan side battling. He arrived at 3/52 chasing 305 for an unlikely victory. Not only was the target going to be hard to attain three down already, but the Proteas were sporting a bowling attack featuring the likes of Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander.
Much like Stokes, Perera’s teammates fell before him. Where Stokes had support from Joe Denly (50) and Joe Root (77) Perera found himself isolated at the Sri Lankan top order. Kusal Mendis and Niroshan Dickwella found globes next to their name on the scorecard.
Meanwhile, Perera was cutting the Proteas attack apart like he was the head chef at Benihana.
His support was failing. Dhananjaya De Silva was dismissed for 48 before the tail-end of Suranga Lakmal, Lasith Embuldeniya and Kasun Rajith all fell for single digit scores. 9/226, Sri Lanka needed 77 runs to win.
Much like Lyon for the Aussies, Keshav Maharaj stepped to the plate for South Africa. He too was met with the crack of Perera’s bat. There was no roar, but a deep silence. Six runs.
A quick single off Maharaj brought up Perera’s triple figures as he pointed his head to the heavens. A wry smile to Vishwa Fernando at the other end, but there was still plenty of work left to do; 64 runs worth.
It was back to business. Perera hooked Duanne Oliver for six and Kingsmead’s silence grew a little louder.
He took it up to Kagiso, who was carted around the stadium.
Then it was Steyn’s turn. A Proteas legend in what would be his final year playing International Test cricket. A man who’s name strikes fear into any batsman.
Maybe not Kusal Perera. Steyn was smoked for six and that silence around Kingsmead again grew just a little bit louder.
Rabada got another share of the action. Another six for Perera and the target had suddenly become four runs away.
Rabada took his run-up and hurtled it towards Perera, who met it with the cheekiest of feint edges, taking his score to 153* and winning Sri Lanka the unwinnable test match. The stadium’s silence was now deafening.
May not even be the greatest test innings this year.
Kusal Perera's 153* vs SA.
-higher last wicket stand
-achieved away from home https://t.co/oIX9t0vYyy
— Nikhil Naz (@NikhilNaz) August 25, 2019
Hard to believe, but only 14 of the 2357 Tests ever played have come down to a one-wicket result.
And of those 14, the two highest tenth-wicket stands to win a Test have both come this year: Fernando & Perera (78*) v SA in Durban in February, and Stokes & Leach (76*) today.
— Brydon Coverdale (@brydoncoverdale) August 25, 2019
Perera achieved this feet away from home in front of a South African crowd. There was no LBW shout, just sheer batting mastery.
Wherever your opinion lies, whether you think the pressure of the Ashes adds to Stoke’s performance or whether you think Perera had the greater uphill battle, these knocks are what make Test cricket so incredible and we are so lucky to have been able to see something like this in the modern day.
Pubs across the globe will be filled to the brim with the question being asked – ‘What do you reckon? Headingly hero or Durban destroyer?