Steve Smith v Ben Stokes - the two men who lit up a World Cup & Ashes summer

Ben Stokes and Steve Smith
The two men who lit up the English cricketing summer with superhuman performances - Ben Stokes and Steve Smith

The Oval. Monday, 15 July. The day after England won the World Cup.

The celebrations were winding down. The players had taken the trophy back to the dressing room and the children that came to meet their heroes were drifting from the stands.

For no apparent reason, the aching beauty of Etta James' At Last came wafting out of the public address system to fill the emptying ground.

It's a beautifully emotional song in ordinary circumstances, but on that grey lunchtime, it came with the added feeling of the previous day.

After 44 years of waiting, four years of planning, six weeks of drama from Durham to Southampton and one astonishing final, England were world champions. At last.

That barely believable Sunday, when Sweet Caroline was belted out by the whole of Lord's, was the day that cricket reannounced itself to a nation seeing England playing live on terrestrial television for the first time in a generation.

Little did we know, the heart-stopping drama, unbearable tension and unscripted theatre of the World Cup final would be repeated six weeks later.

This time it was to the soundtrack of Headingley's Western Terrace, heard far and wide by listeners huddled around radios on beaches, in aeroplanes or on top of mountains.

Ben Stokes celebrates at Headingley
Stokes hit 135 off 219 balls to take England to a one-wicket victory over Australia at Headingley

Two days etched into English cricketing folklore engineered by the same man. But, even then, we're still not sure if the summer belongs to Ben Stokes or Steve Smith.

When we look back on 2019, it will be these two giants that stand above the rest for the way they grabbed hold of the battles for cricket's biggest prizes, and took them for their respective nations.

Both have been on their individual rocky roads. When Stokes returned to the England team after his trial for affray in the middle of 2018, he was booed by some sections of Trent Bridge.

Before that, there was the crushing disappointment of being struck for four successive sixes in the last over of the 2016 World Twenty20 final that England had all but won.

Now, he is carried by a wave of heroic adulation every time he walks to the crease.

In terms of being booed, Smith had it so loudly for so long that he must have expected to be heckled when he asked for a table in a restaurant.

At one stage during the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston, his wife took refuge in the Test Match Special commentary box, so upset was she by the taunts aimed at her husband.

By the end of the series, Smith's omnipresence, relentlessness and thirst for runs were appreciated by a crowd who recognised what a colossal opponent he is. Respect earned, boos turned into standing ovations.

Steve Smith celebrates a century
The greatest since Bradman? Steve Smith made three centuries in the four Tests in which he appeared

If redemption is what unites them, then there are plenty more individual characteristics that mark out Stokes and Smith as opposites.

Stokes fuelled himself for his breathtaking match-winning innings at Headingley by devouring two Yorkie raisin and biscuit bars.

Smith only allowed himself chocolate as a reward for a double hundred at Old Trafford, and even then he left some of his Dairy Milk for the next night. His attitude to eating confectionery is like his runscoring - there's always more for tomorrow.

Stokes is a magnetic force, attracting others by the size of personality. When he speaks, people listen, ready to follow him over the top.

Smith is an eccentric genius, one for whom we hold admiration and curiosity in equal measure. "It's dangerous trying to be in Smudge's head," said team-mate Matthew Wade after Smith's twin centuries in the first Test at Edgbaston. "You don't want to be in there."

Stokes is chest-out, knees pumping, blood and thunder. Seizing the epic moments. Smith is twitching, fidgeting, chipping away hour after hour. Putting moments together to create an epic.

They have operated in their own orbits. The World Cup belonged to Stokes, the Ashes to Smith. When Stokes stepped up during the Ashes with a Lord's hundred, then bowled 24 overs virtually unchanged and produced an all-time great innings at Headingley, it came in the Test and a half while Smith was ruled out with concussion.

If you looked hard enough, there were early summer clues that both men were slowly preparing for the magnificence to come.

On the first day of the World Cup, Stokes not only took a gravity-defying catch that left The Oval incredulously jubilant, but also held England together with 89 against South Africa. He did the same in losing causes in two group games, making 82 not out against Sri Lanka and 89 against Australia.

Fifty-over cricket may slowly be passing Smith by, but there were times when Australian trouble required Test batting.

If his Ashes were a banquet, then the hors d'oeuvres were a semi-final knock against England and, before that, a backs-to-the-wall salvage job that set up victory over West Indies. The latter was ended by a Sheldon Cottrell's incredible tip-toeing boundary catch. So distraught was Smith as he watched the replay on the big screen at Trent Bridge, you felt like marching on to the outfield to offer a hug and tell him his time would come.

These were the building blocks for their career-defining performances, achievements that, in time, will mean the pair take their place among the immortals.

Stokes' innings in the World Cup final can line up alongside Geoff Hurst's hat-trick and Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal. His knock at Headingley was at least the equal of Ian Botham in 1981.

Ben Stokes signs autographs
Ben Stokes is a national sporting hero after his heroics in the World Cup and Ashes

Smith is the modern-day Bradman. When the Don's legendary achievements are considered, Smith's stellar summer - the second time he has dominated an Ashes series - will be in the same conversation.

There have been other players serving up memorable moments. Jofra Archer's awesome pace. Kane Williamson's surprise at being told he was the World Cup's player of the tournament. Jack Leach with the heart of a lion and a cloth to clean his glasses.

These were the supporting cast in a show headlined by Stokes and Smith, the stars of a summer blockbuster that dazzled and defied logic.

Non-believers converted, lapsed faith restored. Cricket on the front pages, discussed at the water cooler, once again dragged into the public consciousness.

At last.

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