England, dismissed for just 67 in their first innings — their lowest Ashes total in 71 years — were seemingly dead and buried at 286-9, still 73 shy of a victory target of 359.
But 28-year-old left-handed batsman Stokes, whose five-and-a-half hour innings was a brilliantly paced mix of defence and aggression, saw England home with a superb 135 not out.
“Unbelievable,” Stokes told Sky Sports. “It’s one I’ll never forget.
“I’ve got to try and take it all in,” added Stokes, whose batting heroics helped Englnd win the World Cup for the first time in July.
“I’m not sure it’ll ever happen again. It’s one of the two best feelings I’ve ever felt on a cricket pitch.”
Stokes, involved in a run out of Jos Buttler which looked to have scuppered England’s chances, added: “Just never give up. It’s not over until it’s over. When Leachy came in it was pretty clear what had to be done. It was five and one. I’ll take five (deliveries), you take one.”
Bespectacled Leach, who hit a career best 92 as nightwatchman in England’s recent Test win over Ireland, played his part as Stokes acknowledged.
“He’s a super nightwatchman, knowing what he had to do. I couldn’t watch in the end. I was just waiting to see what happened.”
Stokes, two not out off 50 balls at Friday’s close, faced 219 deliveries in total, hitting 11 fours and eight sixes.
“I think when it got down to the 30s I was thinking, ‘rein it in a little’, but when it was in the 60s, 70s, 50s I had to really try and I sort of got in the zone,” explained Stokes.
“We had to win this game to stay in the Ashes and we managed to do it.”England captain Joe Root labelled his longtime friend’s display “outrageous”.
“We said at the start of the day, ‘we just have to believe’ and while two people are alive and breathing, we have a chance,” said Root, who added just two runs to his overnight score before falling for 77.
“We’ve seen some freakish things already this summer in the World Cup but I didn’t think we’d see something similar in this series.
“It was an incredible game of cricket, an incredible atmosphere and Test cricket is alive and kicking. This Ashes is alive and kicking.”
Asked about Stokes’s innings, he added: “To try and sum that up in words is pretty much impossible. Outrageous batting.”Meanwhile, Australia captain Tim Paine said: “It’s hard to take, losing from that position but you tip your hat sometimes.
“Ben Stokes played an unbelievable innings and in the end he was too good for us. It was probably the best Test innings I’ve seen and the rest of the team thought the same thing.”
Among those at the ground watching the match was David Gower, who played in the celebrated 1981 Ashes Test at Headingley when England beat Australia after following-on in a match where Ian Botham hit 149 not out and fast bowler Bob Willis took 8-43.
“That was the most extraordinary performance I have seen from anyone ever, both as a player and as a broadcaster over the last 40 years,” Sky Sports commentator Gower said.
“To dominate proceedings like that, to control proceedings, to take all the risks that could easily have failed, to come out on top, to be there at that moment, that takes unbelievable skill, unbelievable courage,” the former England batsman added.