Ben Stokes should be out in the middle today bringing his sporting fire to bear for England in the final one-dayer against the West Indies. Instead, he is fighting to save his reputation and possibly his England career.
Make no mistake, imparting violence on a fellow human being on a British street is a serious matter. The assailed required hospital treatment. It might have been worse given the nature of the fall, backwards and unprotected.
Though it is impossible to establish from the video footage revealed in The Sun just who provoked whom, Stokes must now face the consequences of his actions revealed in all their grim detail outside a Bristol nightclub in the early hours of Monday morning.
Depending on what the legal process turns up over the coming days when he is questioned under caution, not only is Stokes’s Ashes participation in doubt but his England future.
Stokes is said to be fragile and devastated following The Sun front page reveal. He reportedly apologised to his employers at the ECB for his part in an altercation that also involved his England team-mate Alex Hales, but no formal statement has yet been made. Stokes is in the lap of his lawyers, who will have instructed him to say nowt for fear of incriminating himself or negatively prejudicing proceedings.
Clearly he will want this to go away as quickly as possible to resume his career. Even if the law finds in his favour that won’t be so easy. This is, after all, not his first brush with controversy. And we cannot erase the vision of Stokes knocking one victim to the floor with a punch Mike Tyson would be proud to own.
After initially being announced in the Ashes squad on Wednesday Stokes was subsequently suspended by the ECB, along with Hales, following their own scrutiny of the video nasty. What a mess, and entirely of Stokes’s own making, a fractured finger to boot.
England head coach Trevor Bayliss claims this episode is one of the most difficult he has had to negotiate as a coach. He expressed his bewilderment that a player involved in an ongoing series should be anywhere other than bed at 2:30am. Bayliss called it unprofessional, or at least that was the printable version of his account.
It was not only unprofessional it was bovine. Again we must wait for the details to emerge to assign blame for the incident, but not to pin responsibility squarely on Stokes’s shoulders for being out in Bristol city centre. The point is he should not have been there in the first place. You are either a professional athlete or you are not.
In the sepia past when everybody went out for a beer, smoked a fag, ate a kebab, sailed a pedalo across the harbour, there was no disadvantage in indulging these appetites. Work hard, play hard. Not now. Not in the age of biological measurements when the health of an athlete is easily established via routine blood tests. It is no longer possible to be a cricketer on match days and a Freddie-Flintoff-esque freestyler on non contact days. Professional sport is a 24/7 business. Anything less compromises performance and lets down the team.
Stokes’s involvement immediately took him out of the equation for Wednesday’s one-day game against the West Indies and the final fixture in the series at the Rose Bowl in Hampshire. He is not only an important cricketer, he is England vice-captain, a position that comes with responsibility. And more than that he is a hero to a generation of young kids padding up in the hope that one day they might emulate his feats in the middle.
At the risk of sounding like a Victorian schoolmaster, it is a personal frustration that some in sport take the privilege of playing professionally so lightly. It does not say anywhere in his contract that Stokes must be a good boy. But in the tacit relationship he has with supporters, especially kids, he surely has a duty to respect not only the law but the demands of his sport. In the early hours of Monday he showed wanton disregard for the codes of behaviour that govern us all.
In another life I spent a brief period as head of communications at sports agency ISM, who had and still do have Stokes as a client. The role did not pan out quite as I expected but it did expose me to the view from the other side of the media fence and offered a glimpse into the make-up of English cricket’s street-fighting man.
Media training was thought wise since Stokes had already been arrested and cautioned for obstructing police shortly before Christmas of 2011. In addition some of his social media posts were provocative to say the least and in a few cases in poor taste. For a young cricketer with a big future you can understand how run-ins with the local constabulary and rum exchanges on Twitter might not be good for business.
It was clear to me that Stokes was a force of nature, impatient to get on, reckless in the sense that he believed that his talent would be enough to pull him through any situation. His parents knew otherwise, and there was the standard tension between a fired-up kid wanting to make his own way and guardians sensitive to dangers that he simply disregarded.
We talked for about an hour. Or rather I did. I can’t swear that it cut through all that much. He felt obligated to listen but how much he absorbed I’m not sure. The meeting was probably more helpful to his parents, particularly mum, who seemed pleased to hear the advice she had offered echoed in mine.
It seemed to me he would learn only through experience and there would be plenty of that. Little more than 12 months later he was sent home from a Lions tour to Australia for staying out drinking after hours with Matt Coles. Having been warned previously the management had no choice but to act.
The following year he missed the T20 World Cup after punching a locker during the tour of the West Indies. There have been numerous on-field incidents, too, that have resulted in reprimands and fines, most recently in August for directing “obscene, offensive or insulting” language towards a referee during a Test against the West Indies. You can see the pattern here, which brings us to this week’s calamity.
It is not as if England do not have enough problems without Stokes disgracing himself yet again. The response of most experts to the Ashes squad was one of disappointment, some arguing it is the worst selection to travel Down Under. Kevin Pietersen described the squad as horrendous on Twitter, adding “they may as well not go”.
The return of proven Test duds Gary Ballance and James Vince did nothing to quell concerns about the gaping holes in the batting order at no.3 and no.5. Mark Stoneman hardly made the opening position his own in partnership with Alastair Cook, but goes in the absence of a better alternative.
Stokes is central to England’s prospects, adding pedigree with the bat at no.6 and a 90mph threat with a Kookaburra ball on good tracks that do not aid seam and swing. None of that will matter if guilt is his, for in that scenario it will be hard for the ECB to sanction his inclusion.
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