England share the burden and the glory in Ben Stokes' crowning victory

England share the burden and the glory in Ben Stokes' crowning victory
By: Cricket Posted On: December 05, 2022 View: 180

Usually, there's nothing more anti-climatic than a DRS review to end a Test match. The ecstasy of the moment is at its purest the first time that finger goes up. Raw. Undistilled. Real. When it's sent to the umpire upstairs, though the anxiety returns, the wait for confirmation or disavowal is, well, just that - waiting. Even if it comes back as the former, the emotions have already been spent, the octaves of those first cheers never quite reached again. It's why you only really get one go at a surprise party.

But as England stood in the middle of the Rawalpindi Stadium waiting for one of the two screens to tell them their fate, it felt right they spent time huddled close together, waiting. Ollie Pope rested his head on Jack Leach's shoulder, perhaps thinking back to the catch he left when Pakistan were nine-down that could have avoided this tension. James Anderson momentarily leant on Ollie Robinson after the pair of them had stretched themselves to the limit, combining for eight wickets on an unresponsive surface. Ben Stokes, head weary from endless permutations, knee aching from an 11-over-straight spell, moved away from the nucleus of the group without really leaving to get a better view of the big screen to the west of the ground. It meant that, when it was confirmed Leach's delivery was predicted to hit leg stump were it not for Naseem Shah's front pad, all were close enough to leap straight into each other's arms, to embrace the most remarkable Test win in England's history.

There, in a manufactured nutshell, was one of the key tenets that this team, and thus this 78-run victory, has been built on. A remarkably robust camaraderie, in the image of a captain whose selfless streak goes to the heart of everything that is good about his game, and even mitigates some of the bad - not least his eyecatchingly bad shot to get out for a duck in the fourth-day declaration charge.

You could say the theme of this week has been togetherness, given the manner in which a virus ran through the camp in the lead-up to this match. The aftermath, in terms of recovery and what they have been able to put together over the last five days of play, speaks of the more tangible elements to it. Having begun to feel ill on Tuesday and into Wednesday morning, the group rallied as best they could, checking in on one another, doing their best to lift the spirits of those confined to their rooms. It was late on Wednesday that Stokes, having recovered enough from his own ailment, paid a visit to fellow bug sufferer Leach in his room. Part of the check-up was to push him to play, even if he was not 100 percent.

On Monday evening, Leach thanked Stokes for inspiring him out of his sick bed. Now the historical shot of England's third win in Pakistan in 25 attempts, in their first match in the country for 17 years, is of the left-arm spinner leading the successful appeal after getting the new ball to grip - somehow - and trap Shah lbw. It was his sole wicket of the innings. "Like… that's the greatest win I think I've ever been involved in," Leach beamed. "And obviously Headingley was amazing."

The team were as one when they awoke on Thursday, unsure if the Test would be delayed by 24 hours if they could not scrape together an XI. Messages went around to see how everyone was holding up. As it happened, the only player to miss out from the team named on Tuesday was Ben Foakes. Having failed a last-minute fitness test before the toss, Will Jacks stepped in as his replacement, and was handed his cap by his Surrey team-mate Pope, who in turn assumed the gloves.

The Surrey trio shared words with each other: encouragement for Jacks to play the way that got him this far, and positive reinforcement for Pope, who last kept wicket in a red-ball game in the Hamilton Test against New Zealand way back in November 2019. The off-colour Foakes would go on to take the field on day five, running on with drinks, helmets and towels, and even finding time to congratulate Pope on a stunning leg-side take to remove Zahid Mahmood.

Speaking on the local TV network, Pope admitted he had felt a little nervous about filling in for one of the best glovemen in the country while also fulfilling the No.3 duties, a job done best with a singular focus. Instead, he contributed 108 to a first-innings total of 657 before getting down to 252 overs' of grind behind the stumps. His catch off Abdullah Shafique would hand Jacks his maiden Test wicket, and he'd chip in with two more as the off-spinner conjured six for 161 to bowl Pakistan out and establish an invaluable lead of 78.

At stumps on day one, the players got around each other once again. By then, England were 506 for four thanks to four centurions - Pope, Ben Duckett, Zak Crawley and Harry Brook - but amid the deserved praise from head Brendon McCullum was an appreciation from all four that the hard work was only just beginning. As well as they played, on their way to England's highest score in Asia and becoming the first team to strike at better than a run-a-ball in both innings of a Test match, no one was resting on their laurels.

Even as relatively junior members of the squad - through age and/or experience - all four relayed their views of the pitch, forming the approach for the opening session of day two in which 151 more runs were scored in 26 overs. After England's second innings, those who spent the most time out there - Crawley and Brook again, along with Joe Root - fed back to the dressing-room that the pitch was suddenly not as amenable as before. Which was remarkably perceptive given that England scored 218 inside 28.5 overs of the middle session on day four, before Stokes' declaration at tea. But the idea was formed to concoct situations for Pakistan to play big shots. An enticing chase was a good start.

It's worth sticking on that moment a little bit, because it was at this juncture that opinions diverged. In the lead-up to this Test, heck, way back when this whole Magic Roundabout of a fever dream began in May, front-facing members of the touring party have espoused the mantra of disregarding a loss if it comes through pushing for victory. This however, seemed a little too far-fetched. The lead was 342 and, even allowing for the surface, England had the match in their hands. And seemingly drunk on the Kool Aid, maybe even with a jumped-up sense of self, they decided to break off half and hand it over to Pakistan.

While those on the periphery doubted, even ridiculed a declaration made seemingly out of hubris, Stokes powered on, clear-headed about what he wanted to achieve and exactly how he was going to do it. And the best part of the plan was the collaboration that led England to victory.

The younger members maintained enthusiasm, unwilling to consider the prospect of investing so much into a match and coming out empty-handed, and also railing against the idea that some of their ilk don't have the concentration or hunger for this format. "A few times I said 'just enjoy the flatness'," said Stokes. "Enjoy the challenge of trying to create something out of nowhere."

Even as Pakistan looked to be making headway in the chase on the final day, notably when Mohammad Rizwan and Saud Shakeel ransacked the spin of Leach, Jacks and Root for 72 inside 16 overs, then when Azhar Ali and Agha Salman were well-set after tea, needing 86 with five wickets in hand, energy levels were up.

While Stokes racked his brains for new fields, others offers suggestions, at times even taking it upon themselves to stagger themselves differently - such as when four men were stationed spitting distance from one another on the off-side at point, cover-point, cover and extra cover, or during the final throes, when both edges of the bat were being challenged. Catchers had to be arranged accordingly, but each player took responsibility for where they needed to be. This was all their burden to share, not solely the captain's. "There were a lot of things that went our way today that paid off, because of the suggestions that were coming in from the guys that were out there," Stokes said, sharing the credit.

Indeed, to look at how England approached the last innings is to realise how devoid it was of pretension, from the man in charge to those he was leading. No one was too good to do something they weren't comfortable with.

Harry Brook, England's new crown prince, had no qualms about getting on his knees with 240 match runs in his pockets. Keaton Jennings, who might have considered himself unlucky to miss this match, fielded under the helmet for long periods as a sub for Liam Livingstone, who sustained a knee injury on day two and will return home on Tuesday morning. Jennings was one of a number who did stints close to the bat, with and without protection.

Most notably, beyond the exuberance of those wet behind the years, was how those hardwired with preconceptions of Test cricket - even weathered by them - responded. Stokes revealed it was Root who came up with the short-ball ploy for the start of the second innings. A once reluctant, unimaginative captain seemingly responding to the challenge of thinking creatively and feeling emboldened to suggest something he would never have instigated in his five years. And yet thanks to him, England arrived into day five needing only eight wickets rather than 10, with the crown jewel Babar Azam, a centurion in the first innings, snuffed out for just four

Then there's James Anderson. In the lead-up to this Test, when reflecting on his 2005 tour of Pakistan, Anderson admitted he would love to still have some of the miles-per-hour he had back then as a 23-year-old, but ceded the skills accrued over all those years more than make up for it. To see him forgo the new ball, coming on first-change to initially bowl a couple of overs of bouncers, then set about controlling the run-rate, then attacking with reverse swing to finish with 4 for 36 from 24 overs - half of them maidens - spoke to those gifts. And to see him operate with leg slips and a catching midwicket, instead of a packed cordon, speaks to a 40-year-old with a renewed sense of purpose. Without his partnership with Robinson, whose 4 for 50 earned him the Player of the Match award, a remarkable win would not have come to pass.

"Jimmy Anderson said to me there at the end-of-match presentation that he was getting quite emotional about this win," Stokes revealed. "The guy has played nearly 180 Test matches, has experienced everything, the highs and lows of Test cricket. To hear him say that about this particular Test match, I think that really makes you realise how special an achievement this week has been, wearing this England shirt."

Having won ODI and T20 World Cups, and achieved 2019's miracle at Headingley, Stokes rated this success as one of the best. It is unquestionably the best embodiment of him as a captain. Not just for his bravery, nor the tactical calls that paid dividends, such as keeping the reversing old ball in play until midway through the 95th over to quieten the scoring, then replacing it that so Leach could use the prouder seam to turn it off the deck and win the match. But for the way he inspired everyone to rally together from start to finish.

"At the moment it feels like everyone is doing what they need to do for the bloke that's stood next to them," he beamed at his press conference, almost like a proud father.

"As a captain it's amazing to see the amount of enthusiasm and the heart that everyone shows. I don't think I've seen a team who want to put their bodies on the line [as much] for the other 10 players. It's a special group of players."

With eight minutes to go in the match, England beat the pitch, the setting sun and Pakistan to go 1-0 up in the series. And they achieved it through skill, pluck and the kind of team performance that will bind them together for a lifetime.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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