Over the course of a remarkable, record-breaking innings from Ben Stokes at The Oval on Wednesday, we were all taken back to the halcyon days of mid-summer.
Before then, during the course of two largely uninspiring one-day internationals against New Zealand and the start of the third that saw the hosts reduced to 13 for two, it felt like English cricket was still suffering from an almighty Ashes hangover.
This series, which concludes at Lord’s on Friday with England 2-1 ahead, felt like a massive comedown from the highs of that dramatic battle against Australia that had captured the nation’s imagination across June and July.
Anything that followed was always going to feel anti-climactic. But this was exacerbated by the low-key nature of this series, essentially a warm-up for the World Cup that starts in India next month, and the negativity around the non-selection of Harry Brook, one of the stars of the Ashes, in England’s provisional squad for the tournament.
It was, to be frank, all a bit uninspiring.
Yet over the course of 185 magical minutes at The Oval that saw Stokes plunder England’s highest ODI score of 182, the previously-lethargic preparations for the World Cup were given a massive shot of adrenaline.
To put it simply, Stokes sprinkled some Bazball stardust on what had been turning into a disappointing build-up to the tournament.
This, of course, was what England were hoping for when they persuaded Stokes to come out of one-day retirement last month.
The 32-year-old has not only been at the heart of his country’s remarkable transformation in Test cricket alongside coach Brendon McCullum but was the decisive factor in England winning the 50-over and T20 World Cups in 2019 and 2022 respectively.
England’s white-ball teams offered the template for the no-fear approach of Bazball. However, despite winning that T20 title in Australia at the start of last winter, it’s felt like something has been missing since former captain Eoin Morgan retired last year.
Indeed, things have felt a bit stale. Coach Matthew Mott and Jos Buttler, who took over the captaincy from Morgan, can point to that T20 World Cup win last November as proof their methods are working.
But even then, England fell to a shock defeat by Ireland and needed gritty, characterful innings from Stokes in their final group match against Sri Lanka and again in the final against Pakistan to get over the line.
This is okay but it tells you how important Stokes’ influence is on this white-ball group. Without him they would have had no chance of defending their title in India. With him they have a shot.
It’s instructive that speaking after his innings on Wednesday, Stokes, who before this series had not played an ODI for 14 months, admitted: “There was a couple of times where I was just looking at the scoreboard and I actually just had to check myself again and realise how many overs we had left to go. I realised you definitely do have much more time than you think. It’s just familiarising myself again with the ebbs and flows of 50-over cricket.”
The huge influence of data on white-ball cricket means things often feel a bit ordered, calculated and prosaic. But in his innings on Wednesday, Stokes played on instinct.
It was, for large parts, pure chaos – the kind of chaos we have not seen since, well, the last Ashes Test back at The Oval six weeks ago. This is what made the Ashes so gloriously unpredictable and such compelling viewing.
Indeed, this felt like Stokes’ totemic final-day innings in the second Test against Australia at Lord’s, when he also bludgeoned nine sixes as he did on Wednesday.
Following Stokes’ lead, tapping into that Bazball energy and embracing the chaos can only help England at the World Cup.
Chris Woakes, one of five players in England’s team on Wednesday who were part of that final Ashes Test, is in no doubt how important that one innings from Stokes may be.
“It’s great for the group and, obviously, brilliant for Ben,” he said. “We obviously see Ben as this superhuman that can do incredible things. We know he can. He’s an unbelievable cricketer but coming back into the team having retired, it will do his confidence a world of good.
“We always have doubts and performance anxieties at the best of times, so it’s great for his confidence and great for the team’s confidence and belief.
“I think him coming back into the team is probably a refreshing feeling for him, without the captaincy on his shoulders. To run the England Test team is a tough job. For Ben, to come in after the Ashes, it’s like a breath of fresh air for him and he epitomises what the team is about in terms of taking the attack to the opposition.”