Early Saturday evening, Joe Root walked past BBC cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, on the Headingley outfield. The England captain had just seen his team through to stumps, in doing so raising hopes of a home win in the Third Ashes Test from non-existent to insane. So unexpected had it been that the hapless hosts could last even the day, Shane Warne had packed his suitcase and checked out of his hotel. Yet England and their Ashes hopes were still just about alive, on 156 for 3 chasing a distant 359. Warne, so integral to Australia's near miracle at Edgbaston in 2005, should have known better than to tempt fate.
"That'll give you something positive to talk about," Agnew revealed Root said to him, sounding jauntily taken aback. "I've been sledged by the England captain," he spluttered with the air of a man amused but perturbed at having his panama hat stolen by a seagull. It was a reminder that Root, as Shannon Gabriel can testify, does have an edge to him despite his famously mundane press conferences and boyish demeanour.
At lunch, Agnew had interviewed climber Joe Simpson, who survived a broken leg and falling into a crevasse in the Andes to crawl three and a half days to safety. His story evolved into a book, Touching the Void, and an award-laden film. Agnew asked Simpson, now a motivational speaker though he dislikes the term, what his advice would be to the England side as their own hopes dangled by the thinnest of threads. "Give up," was the despairing reply. This somewhat disappointed his interviewer, who was expecting a sort of Churchillian roar of defiance or, at least, a Tim Painean one.
Root might not be such a bad man with whom to be trapped in an icy crevasse. He could do his uncannily good impression of Bob Willis and play his ukulele to keep spirits up. The person you would probably want to get you out of one, though, is Ben Stokes. On Sunday, with his 135 not out (there is no point putting an adjective before it because none suffice) he not only secured one of the most absurd sporting victories ever, but probably saved Root's captaincy. The calls for the skipper to step down had not quite grown as loud as the beery, afternoon caterwauling in Headingley's West Stand but it was becoming a consistent background hum.
What came through in Simpson's interview was, of course, his lust for survival but also his immense clarity of thought. Lying trapped in the frozen depths of Peru, Simpson was able to assess whether or not his partner Simon Yates — who had had to cut their rope to save himself — was returning. He also made the equally grim calculation that he could move deeper into the crevasse to find a way out or just die slowly where he was. Even with a shattered kneecap in sub-zero temperatures, he felt his chances were greater than England's on Saturday. He didn't give up.
The most impressive thing about Stokes's knock wasn't how he dug, then nudged, then bludgeoned England to victory, but how — with his body wrecked — he thought them there. At one point on Sunday, when paired with last man Jack Leach, the stump mic picked up the all-rounder saying "Errr" while deciding whether to take a single. Even at that point, even having also bowled 24.2 overs in Australia's second innings, he was audibly deliberating, calculating, evaluating.
The decision-making of Simpson and Stokes under the most intense of sporting and existential pressures shows up how poor England's has been in recent times. Clarity of mind is something that has gone walkabout in Tests, with unusual selections being compounded by even more unusual utilisations. Coach Trevor Bayless admitted Jason Roy would be better down the order, yet England persisted with him up top. The final contribution the unfortunate opener may make to the series could well be walking off the pitch swearing with the sort of intensity that was sadly lacking in his batting.
Joe Denly is hugely likeable and possibly the most phlegmatic man on earth, which is handy when you play and miss as often as he does. There is something in his doughty dad stoicism which makes you long for him to defy what appear to be his considerable limitations at Test level. Despite his half century in England's fourth innings, it still appears a bit optimistic to expect him to do so. Root moving away from his beloved four to first drop to accommodate Denly thus looked a bit odd and the skipper moving back might now look cowardly. Although, after their mauling at the hands of Stokes, the Australians will perhaps be in no position to throw barbs about mental weakness at anyone. England might get away with their captain, even after his terrific fourth innings knock at three, quietly returning to his favoured berth. Thanks, Ben. No worries, Skip.
Root's management of Jofra Archer also begged questions. It was all giggles when the debutant posted a tweet comparing himself to an old man at the end of the first day. There were smiles all round when he hobbled off mid-over with cramp during Australia's second innings, ironically the catalyst for Stokes starting his match-changing marathon spell. Archer also did a funny impression in the nets of Steve Smith's leaves and affectations. Yet for all the bowler's holistic action and undoubted stamina, with his present workload he will surely end up copying Smith in a less amusing way, namely by being left on the sidelines. England need a better plan.
Agnew also asked Simpson why he climbed mountains, and about the great achievement he must feel when stood at the top of a peak. Again he got a slightly surprising response, with his guest revealing that sometimes the sensation is just, "Is that it?". Simpson occasionally felt a sense of anticlimax after pulling off what to others would appear an astonishing feat. Few at Headingley on Sunday will have experienced such an emotion, but Simpson's words were striking as they were the exact ones used by Andrew Strauss to describe winning the 2010-11 Ashes.
Strauss's feeling of anti-climax was revealed recently in a gripping cricket documentary called The Edge. It charted England's rise to world number one under Andy Flower and the subsequent decline in the team's on field performance and off field mental states. The former coach emerges well from the film, musing thoughtfully on whether the numerous highs were worth the collateral lows incurred by his intense and ferocious methods. Zimbabwean Flower, who once publicly stood up to Robert Mugabe, himself faced accusations of adopting, in a sporting sense, a somewhat dictatorial style.
Accusations of despotism are something it is highly unlikely current coach Trevor Bayliss will ever face, but some may think that a slight pity. Phlegmatic England coaches, admittedly more obviously in football than cricket, always get a rougher ride of the cerebral. England and its fans still love Churchillian rhetoric as much as Tim Paine. So when teams do badly, quiet, horse whisperer types like Bayliss and batting guru Graham Thorpe will always be on a hiding to nothing when the players look too laissez-faire. It is, though, hard not to think of how disciplined England's batsmen were during that blessed Flower era and wonder how much a healthy fear of their coach contributed to it. Both Bayliss, and Kevin Pietersen, will probably have a wry and sceptical smile at such a notion, however.
Stuart Broad described England as "sloppy" after the ludicrous win in Leeds. In another scene in The Edge, he speaks of Jonathan Trott's obsession with preparation and ensuring that all his kit was in perfect condition. Broad tells how his ex-teammate checked his socks when they came out of the wash to ensure they were still the correct length. Jimmy Anderson speaks in awe of how Trott polished his box relentlessly, staring into it as if contains some secret of the ancients. Smith, incidentally, fastidiously tapes his shoelaces to his socks to avoid them flapping. Before the super over in the World Cup final, Roy had to borrow a box from Mark Wood as his had got lost in the chaos of England's dressing room. A little bit more Trott-like, obsessive attention to detail might not go completely amiss in this present England Test side.
At the end of the match on Sunday the England players didn't rush onto the pitch to hug Stokes. They approached him with the sort of frightened reverence with which the ewoks approached C-3P0. They then hugged him the way Yates probably hugged Simpson when his near dead friend arrived back at their base camp. Root stood in front of his saviour staring, presumably checking Stokes wasn't simply a mirage.
Something beyond comprehension happened at Headingley to drag England out of their abyss. It is, after the volcanic heat of Stokes's genius, cool heads that will stop them slipping back down.
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