The crowd cheer as Pat Cummins is hit for six runs by Ben Stokes. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
The crowd cheer as Pat Cummins is hit for six runs by Ben Stokes. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Ashes image tells incredible tale

As Jack Leach took guard, tapped his bat, then looked up at Pat Cummins charging in, it was Ben Stokes who caught the eye.

Sick from emotional and physical exhaustion after single-handedly dragging his country within reach of a historic run chase, the fiery all-rounder suddenly found himself unable to look up.

England's hopes had appeared dashed when Stuart Broad missed a James Pattinson yorker to leave Australia one wicket away from victory with England still 73 runs behind.

But in a nine-over span Stokes had managed the run chase - and the strike - to perfection, facing 44 of a possible 55 deliveries to keep Leach scoreless but safe.

Now with the finish line in sight came moments of pure agony.

Knees bent, bum inches from the ground, cradling the bat handle with one hand and the blade with the other, Stokes couldn't watch, as the incredible tension of one of the most remarkable Test matches in history became unbearable.

Ben Stokes was beside himself. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Ben Stokes was beside himself. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

But his bespectacled partner was up to the task in a frantic final hour of the third Ashes Test, which England won by one wicket after Stokes and Leach put on 76 runs for the 10th wicket to chase down 359 - the highest ever successful chase by an English team in history.

The atmosphere at Headingley as Stokes crashed, bashed and smashed his way to an astonishing 135 not out was like being in a coliseum during the days of Roman gladiators (at least, according to Russell Crowe's portrayal, that's what it felt like). But instead of baying for blood, spectators were crying out for a victory the likes of which English cricket fans have ever experienced.

And the red-haired hero of the World Cup delivered.

There was something in the air in Leeds before the first ball was even bowled. As Stokes and Joe Root waited outside the boundary rope to walk on to the field, Headingley rose as one to give them a standing ovation.

The stadium was jam-packed already. No stragglers were floating in dribs and drabs. If history was going to be made then these cricket lovers wanted to be here for every minute of it.

It was spine-tingling. Aussie fans probably expected a quick kill but the atmosphere in the ground suggested otherwise.

The silence in the opening half-hour as Australia bowled dot ball after dot ball reflected the tension at ground level. A huge cheer went up when Root finally knocked a single to register the day's first run 26 balls in, and that cheer was repeated when he added another one to the total shortly after.

It sounds strange but those cheers were as loud as anything you'd hear for a six at a Big Bash game.

Joe Root and Ben Stokes walk out to bat. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Joe Root and Ben Stokes walk out to bat. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The noise levels kept rising when Jonny Bairstow joined Stokes and took the second new ball on. Runs flowed - 48 of them in just seven overs - and the locals were in full voice.

Another standing ovation followed for Bairstow after he nicked to slip on 36 but from there the decibel level drifted downwards. A succession of wickets quietened the English faithful as their dream scenario drifted closer towards the realm of pure fiction.

But Stokes' scriptwriters had other plans. Joined by Leach with 73 runs to get and only one wicket in hand, the hero who won England the World Cup with a sensational batting display in the final, stepped up for his second masterclass of the summer.

Stokes toyed with Tim Paine's field placements. Fans rubbed their eyes to make sure they weren't hallucinating when he launched a remarkable reverse sweep for six over point, then followed it up with a ramp shot over Paine's head for another maximum off Cummins.

The word breathtaking can be used too casually but those shots literally did take your breath away.

Whether those in the stands at Headingley were drunk or delirious we don't know, but the smell of bare feet filled the air over the Western Terrace as the chant of "Shoes off if you love Ben Stokes" echoed around the ground.

See the video below for context if that turn of events leaves you wondering just how mad the English are.

Pandemonium reigned as Stokes cleared the pickets - he hit eight sixes in total - but if there was a roof it would have been blown off when Leach scored his first and only run for the day.

He contributed just a single in his 76-run stand with Stokes but it was the most important single of his life, turning a ball off his hip into the leg side.

Hours after the match had finished as darkness descended on the north of England, the England team made its way from the dressing room, beers in hand, out to the middle and were treated to a re-enactment of that vital run.

Still wearing his white shirt, Leach shadow-batted as his teammates watched on, mimicked that same leg glance and scurried through to the other end before turning around and raising his imaginary bat to the crowd.

Paul Collingwood famously received an MBE after scoring just seven runs in the 2005 Ashes and if the thousands of people who saw Leach's single had any say in it, Leach would be getting one too, even if he never plays another Test for England.

Nervous moments. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Nervous moments. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Just don’t get out. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Just don’t get out. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)