Sir Garfield Sobers is the king among all-round cricketers; Jacques Kallis has the figures to sit close by his throne. Both could have been chosen by their country as either batsman or bowler but can reasonably be categorised as more formidable when receiving the ball than delivering it. Of Sir Richard Hadlee, you would say the opposite, though his occasional slam-dunk innings happened so quickly that the match was invariably changed because of them. Sir Ian Botham, Imran Khan and Kapil Dev would be first on the sheet for their bowling, after which the selectors could ink them in pretty much anywhere, from first drop in Imran's case to fifth in Kapil's. Those who saw Keith Miller say he could do anything if the mood took him. Mike Procter was much the same, though the legend is built around his fast and uniquely unorthodox inswingers. By common consent these guys are the best. Andrew Flintoff joined their number in two home Ashes series when he floated on high. The idea that the Ashes defines cricketers from England and Australia left us wanting more and more from Flintoff down under.
And so to Ben Stokes, who is busy making his case for all-round immortality. The wonder of the innings at Headingley that is now rejoiced upon by every passer-by in the land is that it was Stokes the bowler who made it possible in the first place. Charging up the hill that Fred Trueman regarded as a job for medium-pacers, Stokes threw himself at the Australians for all but 15 consecutive overs of furious riposte. As was once said of Harold Larwood: "His onslaught was so projectile that his knuckles sometimes grazed the pitch."
Stokes with the ball is a force of nature, different from one day to the next and defined by the needs that must; or, put another way, the greater the trauma around him, the more likely he is to sort it out. This is typical of true allrounders, the strength of their character being every bit as relevant as that of body and mind.
Botham spent years papering over the cracks in English cricket and once he had finished, years were spent trying to find another edition. These fellows don't pop out of the womb that often, which meant a trial of expectation for cricketers such as Derek Pringle, Phil DeFreitas, Chris Lewis, Craig White, the Hollioakes, and then Flintoff and Stokes. Rated against Sir Ian, only the last two cut muster. Indeed, you could say they have laid the ghost of Botham to rest. (It is unwise to suggest the "laying" of Botham in any form. He is ever-present, in this way and that, but the search for a cricketer to match him is over.)
The similarities among the three are remarkable. Each is an immensely strong man, hewn of spit and sawdust. Even when Botham was young and fit, he filled the screen; Flintoff's huge frame has slimmed down in the days since television became his master. Stokes is beautifully built, in the manner of a modern rugby back whose work in the gym complements natural athleticism. Each of them gives the impression that he would win a bout by a knockout and this adds an overwhelming sense of presence to their cricket. What with the power of their personalities, it is easy to see how any but the toughest opponent might wilt.
Of the three, Botham is the finest bowler, Flintoff the fastest and Stokes the most unpredictable. Each of them is willing, a gift in itself, and loves to attack, which is in the DNA. Given the aggression required for this work, stamina has been an essential attribute.
In the one-off Golden Jubilee Test played in Bombay in 1980, Botham made a hundred and took 13 wickets while suffering from a stomach bug so bad he barely slept. Instead he drank whisky till cockcrow and nibbled at chicken. You would expect an attempt of the same from the other two, and they would doubtless have matched Beefy's herculean 49 overs if required, but the skill to dismiss batsmen such as Gavaskar (twice) Viswanath and Kapil Dev on their own patch might have been beyond them.
Alan Knott called Botham the best swing bowler he saw. It was Knott who during a county match saw the Test match score at Edgbaston and, with Australia five down and needing just 37 more, announced that "Both" would take five for none and England would win. Nearly right: "Both" took 5 for 1.
In 2005 at Edgbaston, Flintoff bowled a seismic over that not only got rid of both Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting but inspired a nation to believe. Having made 68 from 62 balls in the first innings and 73 from 86 in the second, he grabbed the ball like a man possessed. First the big Lancastrian forced Langer to drag on, then he fired the ball in towards Ponting's off stump, twice hitting him on the pads before ripping away a couple of legcutters, the second of which found the outside edge of the Australian captain's bat. In a single over he had rewritten the storyline and the triumphalist Edgbaston crowd knew it.
Last year - England once more into the breach at Edgbaston - Stokes roared in from the City End of the ground to put the mockers on Virat Kohli's march to victory. He finished with four wickets in total but Kohli's counts double, and anyway, such was Stokes' impact that it felt like more. (It is often forgotten that Shane Warne took four wickets in the second innings of the "amazing Adelaide" Test in 2006-07. Such was Warne's effect that it felt to the England team, and all onlookers, like he had taken all ten.)
Whatever Stokes does, however, or will do, nothing is likely to match August 25, 2019 at Headingley.
It was a performance of incredible nerve and instinctive brilliance. I have long thought him the perfect No. 3, given his range and versatility, but now that his role with the ball has become paramount to the shape of the England team, he may be best left at five.
Unlike Flintoff, whose batting was one-dimensional, and Botham, who had the ability to defend but rarely chose to, Stokes has become a batsman for all seasons. The list of his previous best innings - 258 in Cape Town and two hundreds a couple of years apart at Lord's - had belligerence at their core, but increasingly his batting has been founded upon sound technique, risk aversion and game awareness. It is brave to block for so long. Had he been out for 3 off 73 balls, he might have been criticised for not playing his "natural game", a phrase that is cricket's cop-out, as if a naturally attacking batsman can be excused for flashing at a wide ball or slogging into the hands of deep midwicket.
Stokes played the game required for the situation in which he found himself. This was the most epic thing about it and the most courageous. Once left with no option, he reverted to type and began the assault that took England to victory. It was simply magnificent batting, a performance of which few men in the game's history would have been capable. The same can be said of his Man-of-the-Match performance in the World Cup final and of his flying catch in the opening game of that tournament at The Oval. There is a magic about Stokes that takes him to a different orbit. Watch the YouTube film of his advert for Red Bull. It is most of what you need to know.
Botham's 149 at Headingley was nowhere near the quality of the Botham masterpiece hundred that followed two Test matches later at Old Trafford. In truth, Headingley was a gambler's innings founded upon an outrageous nothing-to-lose approach, the raging fire within, and Mike Brearley's ongoing encouragement of expression. You name it, Botham hit it, and what he did so well, of course, and not for the first time, was destroy the spirit of the opposition. He was gargantuan in that way and well monikered as "Guy the Gorilla".
Flintoff made an eye-catching hundred at Trent Bridge in 2005, hitting the ball so hard to the boundaries that gasps of astonishment echoed around the ground. All series there was something of the village green in his strokeplay, an idea not lost on Brett Lee - the world's fastest bowler on the receiving end of some mighty blows - who simply stood and smiled at the nature of it all.
At Headingley, Botham had Graham Dilley to play his straight man; in 2005, Flintoff had Geraint Jones, the little wicketkeeper with a huge heart and a rasping square drive. Stokes, an Olympian, had Jack Leach, with his almost comic, and certainly bookish, cleaning of the spectacles. Oh what a pair they made, telling us more about cricket's possibility and optimism than anything else.
In summary then, could Botham or Flintoff ever have played such an innings? Certainly Botham had the inclination and ability for the second part - the switch from defence to attack - for he loved the creation of mayhem. But the first part? Probably not. And Flintoff? Well, let's just say it's unlikely. Could anyone? Comparisons across the many ages of the game can be maddening because cricket has evolved and is so changed, but they remain irresistible. My guess is that Sobers might have been the only one; he had so much game! But it's a guess, so give me a break. Of England batsmen, Dennis Compton probably had the chutzpah to try it and Kevin Pietersen doubtless had the imagination, but even they might not have had the patience.
The innings had everything. And then some. It was heroic and inspirational; powerful; unforgettable; cunning, smart and visionary. Frankly, we have all been warmed by it in a way that is nothing short of wonderful. Such is the influence of sport.