THERE was a revealing moment towards the end of Joe Root’s press conference after the Headingley Test against Australia.
A journalist enquired, tongue firmly in cheek, “Tell us, Joe, is there anything that Ben Stokes isn’t good at?”
The England captain smiled, thought about it for a minute and said: “Well, his handwriting isn’t too good.”
Cue laughter all round from the assembled scribes.
Then, from the back of the room, a voice piped up and playfully called Root a mild expletive.
The voice belonged to Stokes, who was waiting to deliver his own press conference once Root’s had ended.
I will admit, I knew that Stokes was a great cricketer, but I did not realise that he was this great, that he could reach such stellar heights not once but twice within the space of a few weeks.Chris Waters
Cue further laughter.
Not to be outdone, and shaking his head as is by way of apology to those present, a smiling Root returned: “And his language isn’t great, either.”
The Yorkshiremen proceeded to pay glowing tribute to the man whose unbeaten 135 had just led England to a one-wicket win that levelled the Ashes series at 1-1 with two Tests to play.
In the midst of this brief, earthy, good-natured exchange, it was possible to detect the rapport that exists between the captain and vice-captain.
It was clear that the bond between them is watertight and that the channels of communication are not only open but open-minded too; ergo, it follows that observations and opinions are freely volunteered/exchanged behind the scenes.
Root is the captain and a great ambassador, but both are leaders in an England team that marches to the tune of their single-minded drum.
Like Root, Stokes possesses a work ethic that seeps from every pore; his pride in playing for his country shines like a beacon.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons they get on so well, for a great man instinctively recognises another.
Root will appreciate the skill, the flair, the attitude and the never-say-die spirit of Stokes just as much as Stokes will appreciate those qualities in Root.
Although different in many respects, they are peas from the same stubborn, uncompromising pod.
When Stokes delivered his own press conference, there was passing mention of the events of Bristol 2017 as someone asked whether this was all part of his “redemption” and so on.
Although perfectly amiable and open throughout, Stokes was in no mood to go into this at all, preferring not to revisit the infamous episode outside a nightclub for which he was subsequently cleared of affray and which cost him an Ashes tour/damaged his reputation.
What struck me in that moment was also quite telling: namely, how strikingly irrelevant Bristol now seemed, along with all the lazy talk of redemption, atonement, or whatever else you want to call it.
Whereas once, in a word association test 20 years from now, one might have replied to the words “Ben Stokes” with “Bristol”, one would be much more likely now to respond with “Headingley 2019” or “the 2019 World Cup final”, Stokes having also helped win that match in astonishing style.
This is particularly good news not only for Stokes, of course, but also English cricket, the game’s profile, and its reliance on players such as Stokes to champion its cause.
Who now would not regard him as an English sporting hero of which to be enormously proud?
That is the extent to which he has transformed the narrative in a remarkably short space of time.
It was not just the style that Stokes displayed at Headingley, the sheer bloody-minded genius or the outrageous skill, it was also the way in which he conducted himself.
He was modest in the midst of his finest hour, the finest hour that any English batsman has ever known.
He spared a thought for his opponents and paid tribute to the crowd, recognising the support of the Yorkshire public.
Stokes celebrated his achievement but only to the extent that he recognised the job was only half done.
The time for proper celebration, he said, for looking back and reflecting on everything would only come later. “I will only take real satisfaction from the innings if we win back the Ashes,” he announced.
I will admit, I knew that Stokes was a great cricketer, but I did not realise that he was this great, that he could reach such stellar heights not once but twice within the space of a few weeks.
We all knew what he could do –the coruscating 258 at Cape Town, the maiden Test century in Perth, and so on, but what he achieved at Headingley and in the World Cup final was something else, beyond anything even that Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff achieved.
Even now, more than a week on, I still cannot quite believe what happened at Headingley, and I wonder whether I really did look down from the privileged vantage point of the press box and watch what was surely the greatest innings in terms of all factors – match situation, the quality of bowling, the state of the series, and so on – ever produced by an Englishman, possibly by anyone. It was the work not merely of a great all-rounder, but of a sporting genius.
Fourteen years earlier, I had an equally privileged vantage point in the Edgbaston press box when Michael Vaughan’s England famously beat Australia by two runs.
They called it the greatest Test match ever played and, on balance, I still believe that it was, at least in my lifetime, not least given the truly incredible nature of the Australian team at the time and the shock, almost, that attended England’s defeat of it during that never-to-be-forgotten 2005 series.
It is probably a bit like being asked to pick your favourite child but Headingley 2019 ran it to the wire and Stokes’s innings was, as I have stated, surely unsurpassed from an English perspective.
Botham’s 149 not out at Headingley in 1981 was obviously right up there, but Stokes’s display – as those who took part in that 1981 game have said – was something else entirely.
It was an innings – and a Test match – which also seemed fitting given the way that Headingley has developed in recent times, with the new Emerald Stand presiding over its first Test having opened earlier this year.
That stand is the equivalent of a Stokes innings – magnificent – and to Yorkshire must go the utmost credit for providing a stage and an atmosphere befitting the occasion.
Meanwhile, to the tongue-in-cheek question posed to Root during his press conference as to whether there is anything that Ben Stokes isn’t good at, I would probably be tempted to answer in the negative.
For this is a man who has turned his life around to become one of our greatest sporting heroes.