Ben Stokes was savouring every moment after dragging England back from the Ashes brink with a match-winning century at Headingley that is destined to go down as one of the great Test innings.
Stokes conjured a virtuoso performance of 135 not out that was easily the equal of Sir Ian Botham’s classic performance on the same ground in 1981, turning certain defeat into a one-wicket victory and re-energising a series that would have slipped from England’s grasp without him.
Just six weeks earlier Stokes’ bloody-minded brilliance with the bat had powered England’s remarkable World Cup win at Lord’s and here he guided them to their biggest fourth-innings chase of 359, the 10th highest of all time.
That he finished the job by leading number 11 Jack Leach in a drama-filled stand of 76 – of which the tailender scored just one run – was even more remarkable.
Stokes, who finished with eight sixes and 11 fours, reflected: “Walking off when the whole of Headingley was standing up and celebrating was a very special moment and something I had to try to take in because moments like that don’t come along very often. It was deafening.
“It was incredible. In terms of where we were at in the Ashes series (1-1 with two to play), I’m obviously over the moon. We knew if we lost this game then the Ashes were gone so to be sat here still in with a chance of getting the urn back is an amazing feeling.
“It’s one of the two best feelings I’ve ever felt on a cricket pitch.”
Stokes’ efforts in the middle might have been the stuff of heroes but he readily admitted his preparations were rather more prosaic.
Asked how he had geared up for the challenge in front of him having been two not out overnight, he replied: “I think I had a knock-off Nando’s, two bars of Yorkie – biscuit and raisin – and a couple of coffees in the morning.”
In the supporting role was Leach, who defied the Australians for 17 vitally important deliveries, survived a certain run out that Nathan Lyon botched at the bowler’s end and scored a solitary single that tied the scores.
“Those will be the most important balls Jack Leach has ever faced, or will ever face in his Test career,” said Stokes.
“It takes two to tango in situations like that but for a number 11 to come out under that kind of pressure and to deliver when he needed to deliver was fantastic.”
Captain Joe Root was dismissed for 77 in the morning session, at the time a seemingly fatal blow, and he watched his team-mate’s masterclass with the same awe as every other England fan.
“The emotions in the dressing room were all over the place, but once Ben started going we always believed,” he said.
“He’s a bit of a freak. We’ve seen some freakish things already this summer in the World Cup but I didn’t think we’d see something similar in this series. For Ben to play like that? Wow.
“We were trying to work out how Ben was going to play it but got to the point where we thought it doesn’t matter if he just trusts his instincts. It just shows what pressure can do to people and how different people react to certain situations.”
Australia captain Tim Paine was magnanimous in defeat, appreciating the special status of the contest he had just competed in.
“I thought it was an amazing game of cricket, Ben Stokes was unbelievably good…it was one of the great Test innings,” he said.
“We finished up on the wrong side of it but in terms of an advertisement for Test cricket, I think that was bloody exciting. It was a bit of individual brilliance today from a world-class player. Stokes was playing out of his skin and he managed to do things that you normally wouldn’t see.”