There are rare, precious moments in sport where you see one of the great ones operating on a different plane. They are often fleeting because sport can happen in a blur of movement and intensity.
Sometimes, the burst of genius is over almost before you realise what you have seen. But those moments are all the more intoxicating for that. The first time I saw it live?
The European Grand Prix at Donington Park in 1993 when Ayrton Senna tore through the field in an inferior McLaren, making it dance through the rain, passing Michael Schumacher at Redgate, passing Karl Wendlinger around the outside of the Craner Curves, passing Damon Hill, passing Alain Prost at the Melbourne hairpin and taking the lead, to complete one of the great laps in Formula One history.
I’ve been lucky. I saw Shane Warne ripping through the England batting line-up in the Second Test at Adelaide in December 2006 and the breathtaking brilliance of Phil Mickelson at Augusta in 2004 and Roger Federer winning his first Wimbledon title by dismantling Mark Philippoussis in 2003 and Lionel Messi destroying Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley.
Ben Stokes’ innings of 155 at Lord’s on Sunday belongs in that company. The fact that he had done something remarkably similar at Headingley four years ago only made it more astonishing. It is a privilege to watch him and a privilege to write about him.
There are rare moments in sport where you see one of the greats operating on a different plane
England captain Ben Stokes’ fine innings of 155 against Australia on Sunday was one of those
Stokes belongs in the same company as the likes of Roger Federer and Lionel Messi
Stokes did that thing the great ones do: he bent the occasion to his will. There was a spell, after the controversial dismissal of Jonny Bairstow, when his brilliance and his power transcended the game and spread the terror of impotence through the Australian team.
As Stokes began to cut loose, realising once again that England’s hopes of conjuring the most unlikely of victories in the Second Test were wholly dependent on him, Australia retreated from him like specks of human beings cowering in the face of the onslaught of a hurricane.
It was brutal, and beautiful, to behold. Pat Cummins, the pusillanimous Australian skipper, placed his nine outfielders in a ring around the boundary for over after over but it did nothing to blunt the ferocity of Stokes’ assault on the match and on the boundaries sport tries to impose on its players.
Three times in one spell of three balls, Stokes swung for the fences and three times the ball cleared the ropes, once with the help of the hands of Mitchell Starc, who tried to catch it but only succeeded in shovelling it over the boundary. The third of those sixes brought up Stokes’ century.
He hit nine sixes in all, a new record for an Ashes Test, and they sailed towards the Mound Stand and the Tavern Stand like flaming projectiles, burning with anger and power and desire and genius, raining down on a crowd delirious with wonder at what Stokes was doing.
That it ended in failure when Stokes had brought England in sight of what would have been another miracle victory did not detract from what he had done. It underlined just how much he had been operating on a different level. He had been in that zone that great players talk about sometimes, that Senna talked about, when the sub-conscious takes over. Senna described it as a kind of trance.
It is a privilege to watch the magnificent all-rounder (left) and a privilege to write about him
That enchanted spell when Stokes was at the crease on Sunday underlined that he is the greatest draw in British sport at the moment. It is a crowded field but – for what he has already achieved and for what he continues to achieve – he is the greatest active British sportsman. We should cherish him while we can.
Stokes is 32 and he has been playing with a chronic knee injury for some time, something that makes his heroics at Lord’s even more remarkable. The injury is so bad that Stokes limps through matches.
When he bowled at Lord’s, he said he did not want to bring an end to his spell because he knew that he would be in so much pain once he stopped that he would not be able to start again. Who knows how much longer we will be able to watch him perform like this?
The same applies to Andy Murray, one of the all-time greats of British sport and still an inspiration to fans everywhere with his refusal to accept the ravages that time has visited on his body and his defiance in the face of playing with a metal hip.
Ten years after he first won Wimbledon, Murray’s latest appearance there this week will be another precious chance to see him compete.
Murray has occupied that space as our greatest active sportsman in the past and will always have a claim on being one of the greatest sportsmen this country has produced but whatever heroics he may produce at Wimbledon over the next week, he is in the autumn of his career now. Come back to me if he conjures a run to the final but it is unlikely.
Tyson Fury is becalmed, dodging fights against the best. Lewis Hamilton is struggling in the face of the superiority of Red Bull and Max Verstappen. Rory McIlroy is still searching for his first Major in a decade. Harry Kane is a brilliant footballer and a goalscoring phenomenon but he has not yet won a trophy with Spurs or England.
It is true, of course, that Stokes has not been in a rich vein of form, either, recently, but in the last four years, it was his innings that was critical in England winning the World Cup for the first time, he produced that match-winning masterclass at Headingley, and he was England’s top scorer in the T20 World Cup final at the MCG nine months ago when England won the trophy for the second time.
Time and again, when the stakes are highest, Stokes steps up. Any chance you get to watch him play in the next few weeks, as he tries to mould a team in his image and as England struggle to rescue this Ashes campaign against a fine Australia side, then take it.
As they say in the theatre, if you can’t buy a ticket, beg, borrow or steal one. In British sport, Stokes is the best show in town.
Jonny was naive, but ugly opportunism was worse
In the vast majority of cases, I bow to the opinion of professional sportsmen and women who have walked the walk but in the case of the dismissal of Jonny Bairstow at Lord’s on Sunday, there is a disconnect between the way those steeped in the laws of the game see it and how it looks to a wider public.
Yes, there is an element of English bias involved in decrying the ugly opportunism of Alex Carey and Pat Cummins. Football’s disease of whataboutery has already crossed over into cricket to point out examples – some similar, some not – of English malfeasance.
Australia stumping Jonny Baristow on the fifth day of the Test was not a good look for cricket
The rules say Bairstow was out and for a lot of ex-cricketers, that is a full stop. I understand that. There is no arguing with the legitimacy of it.
For many of the rest of us, though, we see a batter ducking under a bouncer, marking his ground at the end of an over and walking forward to talk to Ben Stokes without any hint of seeking an advantage.
Bairstow was naïve. Those who think that Australia stumping him like that was a good look for cricket are more naïve still.
Oldroyd’s passion for the sport is infectious
Before Lord’s descended into tumult on Sunday, Eleanor Oldroyd, the BBC Radio 5 Live presenter, rang the Five-Minute Bell outside the Bowlers’ Bar of the pavilion to signal the imminent start of play.
Oldroyd is a joy to listen to and her love and enthusiasm for cricket, in particular, has always been infectious. She has done great service to the game she cherishes. I can’t think of many people more deserving of the honour she was granted.
Eleanor Oldroyd richly deserved the honour granted of ringing the bell at Lord’s on Sunday