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Ben Stokes and Steve Smith: men forged by fire set up Ashes for the ages

Cricket has a particular ability to alienate the casual viewer, with its endless jargon and the ...

Ben Stokes and Steve Smith: me...
Other Sports

Ben Stokes and Steve Smith: men forged by fire set up Ashes for the ages

Cricket has a particular ability to alienate the casual viewer, with its endless jargon and the Englishness of it all. But there are two men - in Ben Stokes and Steve Smith - whose flair for controversy and drama make this Ashes essential viewing.

This sport can also cut through the fog of its foibles and deliver perfectly-executed moments of drama. And there was something inevitably dramatic about watching Ben Stokes at bat yesterday.

The runs were just a facet; his game-management against different bowling styles confounded an Aussie lineup that had skittled out England with embarrassing ease not two days before, for just 67. Not today. Stokes managed his partners with the directness of a grizzled American general in 'Nam, gnarled cigar between the teeth.

He hit for the boundary when most would have been enticed by caution - eight sixes are a testament to an all-rounder with total trust in his ability. After a full day under siege in the Yorkshire sun, his performance was not only gritty, but versatile and technically-excellent in its execution.

The total read '135 not out', but that can only give an inkling of what Headingley witnessed. Emerging to a raucous crowd, captain Joe Root was almost immediately dismissed by a brilliant catch from that most Australian man of them all, David Warner. With Warner is still manfully rebuilding a career that was near-destroyed during the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa, credit where it is due. With Root uprooted, Ben Stokes looked to Warner's fellow disgracee for an act to follow.

This is because Smith has defied words and actions this Ashes series. At one point during the scandal in Cape Town last spring, he said "I know I will regret this for the rest of my life [...] I hope in time I can earn back respect and forgiveness." My, has he done that.

He had become a finicky Rubik's Cube for the English bowlers to solve, before Jofra Archer decided that perhaps throwing him on the ground might be the best course of action. Smith's first Test showings outstrip Stokes' total yesterday, but they have a kindred reactivity that sparks when circumstances go against them. The results of which can be destructive or self-destructive.

Stokes' reactions have got him into trouble. He appeared in court this time last year, charged with affray. Stokes had punched a man outside of a nightclub - his lawyer insisting that he had come to the aid of a gay couple who were being verbally abused.

The jury accepted his story, and found him not guilty, but the ECB fined him £30,000 for 'bringing the game into disrepute'. There were two paths that Stokes could take - thankfully for England, he chose that that led him to singular focus on his game.

That attention culminated in one of the most spectacular games of one-day cricket ever seen, with his World Cup final innings against New Zealand providing the best moment in English cricket since 2005; arguably well before. It appears innate in Stokes to attract the dramatic - as England chased the game against the Kiwis, and Stokes stretched for the line, the ball deflected off to chalk up another few vital runs. It seemed written in the stars.

Smith, meanwhile, was in the proximity of provocation during that infamous Test in South Africa. What is easy to forget, given what followed, is that the series was pockmarked with controversy well before Cameron Bancroft was caught with his hand down his trousers.

Smith himself was shoulder-barged by bowler Kagiso Rabada, who was charged in relation to the incident. Meanwhile, South Africa's Quinton De Kock sparked a near-fight in the tunnel, with a comment about David Warner's wife.

What followed can be explained in strobe: Smith/Warner/Bancroft decide to tamper with the ball; Bancroft caught on camera; they try to con the umpires; press conferences galore; Smith/Warner/Bancroft tears; bans for all three.

This summation would, in reality, feel much longer for Smith, who was in some of the best form of his life. But his return proves that sporting class can expunge even the nastiest of stains. One best believe that he still has a pivotal role to play in this Ashes series.

The Australian players were the picture of sportspeople in their congratulation of Stokes yesterday - some even managed a smile as they shook his hand.

Whether it is England or Australia who lift the Ashes at The Oval, there will be special reverence for the two men - like the trophy -  forged by fire.

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Ben Stokes Cricket Steve Smith The Ashes