In mid-afternoon on Sunday the spectators at Lord’s stood as one to salute a wonderful century. Their response combined jubilation and relief, they were paying due tribute to a popular and respected captain who has been written off most days for the past year.
Two hours later they were on their feet again, this time more rapturously, to salute a stunning hundred off 85 balls, the fastest of the 231 at Lord’s. The contrast between Alastair Cook and Ben Stokes could hardly have been more marked but between them, with the crucial assistance of Joe Root, they pulled England back into the first Investec Test. Crisis, what crisis?
What a match this has been to ignite a long summer of Test cricket. When England lost Ian Bell to the third ball of the fourth day, they were still 60 runs behind with only seven wickets left. It looked grim and it seemed certain that it was about to become grimmer at any moment.
By the close they were 295 runs ahead, having batted as well as any England team under Cook’s stewardship. Cook was 153, only 41 runs short of breaking the England Test runs record of his mentor, Graham Gooch, who was in the ground.
England may not win today to go ahead in the series but they should not lose. More importantly, the way they have played, refusing to tug the forelock to extremely competent opponents, has been uplifting. It has been the sort of stuff people might actually want to watch.
Cook and Stokes (and Root, too) were exemplary. Of course, Stokes raised the roof with his ferocious assault. When they pitched short he hooked, when they pitched up he drove down the ground. It was fearless stuff. This, do not forget, followed his first innings 92 – and for a year England have resolutely declined to make him their permanent number six.
It was the sort of innings to empty bars – which at Lord’s takes some doing – and then to make those who saw it want to drink all night. Stokes was relentless, particularly harsh on Tim Southee. He reached his fifty from 57 balls, then accelerated.
The first 12 overs with the second new ball brought 84 runs; Stokes went from 55 to 100 in 22 balls, peppering, to their delight, the Mound and Tavern. It was the 10th anniversary on Sunday of Chance to Shine, the admirable charity established to encourage more children from state schools to play Test cricket. Watch Stokes and they will want to play all right.
Cook watched this attack while continuing acquisitively, undemonstratively – as fluent and assured as he has been for two years. Without him, Stokes could not have done what he did. That is the nature of the game, it was an impeccable way to approach it.
With England imperilled in the morning, Cook and Root were outstanding. The ball was moving around and in the hands of Southee, Trent Boult and Matt Henry, it was being moved around skilfully. Cook was beyond reproach, Root needed a slice of fortune.
Root might have been out to his first ball: he was almost caught at square leg when he was seven, only for the adjudicators to rule that it had hit the ground before finding Corey Anderson’s hands. On 57, he was reprieved by the umpire’s call (equivalent to a not proven verdict in a Scottish court) on an lbw appeal. He was beaten time and again outside off stump.
But Root punished the odd bad ball, refusing to allow his rich run of form to be taken away from him. He and Cook stayed there, thinking, hoping, praying that it would get better for them, that the ball would stop swinging and seaming quite so much. It was a gripping first session.
In the early afternoon, Root’s reward came. He became much more assertive. The fourth wicket pair had taken England’s lead to 98 when Root fell daftly for a version of the three card trick. With two men posted out for the hook, Henry sent down a bouncer and Root, on his game and feeling untouchable, went for it. Down long leg’s throat it travelled.
Three overs later, Cook drove through mid-off to reach his 27th Test hundred from 206 balls. All around they rose, making clear their feelings on myriad subjects.
Above all, on a packed England balcony, the players and coaches jostled to cheer. This, these people were proclaiming, is our captain and leader. No matter what the naysayers out there might feel, this was the most touching of salutations. Cook has survived against the odds when the pundits’ polls were almost unanimous (polls generally are having a bad time of it) and now he is here to stay. Sometimes now, it is possible to wonder if he will ever go, though Australia’s imminent arrival should not be forgotten.
It was Cook’s second hundred in successive Tests, following his 105 in Barbados last month, after going the previous 19 without one. But this was at home, at the home of cricket indeed. There was the genuine sense, as his tenacity clawed England back into the match, that he has been restored somehow. In the 27 innings between his 130 at Trent Bridge in 2013 and his 95 at the Rose Bowl last year Cook averaged 23. Since then he has made seven fifties in 11 innings at above 70.
Stokes made 101 of a partnership of 132 from 161 balls. New Zealand posted men on the boundary and still searched for wickets. This sort of sustained assault is not destined to last but his ending was a surprise. For the second time in the match he was out to Mark Craig’s off spin, caught at slip driving once more. Craig had an indifferent day but he could think to himself that he has the measure of Stokes, twice dismissing him, off a total of 30 balls, for 13 runs.
After Stokes went to a thunderous, partly disbelieving reception, the match returned to a kind of normality. But it deserves a classic finish.Reuse content