Was a flick of sandpaper worse than what happened in Bristol?
There is no escaping that Ben Stokes has brought the game of cricket into disrepute
England cricketer Ben Stokes leaves Bristol Crown Court. Photograph: Getty Images
An emotional Steve Smith, following investigations into ball tampering in South Africa. Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
The England and Wales Cricket Board must have been heartily relieved by the Test team’s emphatic victory over India at Lord’s with their clean-cut all-rounder Chris Woakes excelling while Ben Stokes, grim-faced, clad in his smart blue suit and ritually snapped by photographers, made his daily trip to a Bristol courtroom.
There Stokes relived the details of a night that went horribly wrong in the city last September after a routine victory over West Indies in a one-day international. Then he would reappear in front of the cameras in the afternoon, providing just about the only sighting of an English cricketer on terrestrial TV since the 2005 Ashes series.
Now the ECB can contemplate another victory of sorts, which is so much more complicated to interpret. One of its employees has been found not guilty of affray and is available to go about his business, but it must also consider whether it is appropriate for him to do so. This was not a day for triumphalism from Stokes or those who employ him at Lord’s.
It must have been an ugly week for Stokes while his teammates were enjoying a glorious victory in London but in the end he could allow himself a mild smile. The verdict means that he can concentrate on being a cricketer again. The incident may soon become a tiny blot on a glittering career; he could easily become one of England’s greatest all-rounders. Even so, some stern self-assessment would not go amiss.
The court case may have been survived but there is no escaping that Stokes has brought the game into disrepute. The video footage of a feral night out does not reveal the kind of images that the ECB, so desperate to promote the game to families, wants to be identified with. Indeed, it would be a minor disaster if the verdict leads Stokes to think that he did nothing wrong in Bristol last September, and there is a danger that this might now be the case.
The very best cricketers often ooze invincibility; they are never out and never wrong. They feel invulnerable, capable of dominating any situation. I have witnessed this at close quarters when playing alongside Ian Botham or while keeping an eye on the careers of Andrew Flintoff, Brian Lara and Kevin Pietersen. Such was their predominance in the game that they sometimes concluded that the normal rules did not apply.
In part this explains why some players are so good; self-belief is the most cherished asset among sportsmen. The great ones do not seem to fear failing; instead they take control of what happens in the middle, and sometimes this glorious feeling of power extends beyond the boundary. Which is when it becomes dangerous.
The easy suggestion to such sportsmen when they are in trouble off the field is to be just a bit more careful, more sensible, but this advice seldom hits home. Such caginess is not in their DNA. Perhaps they are great because they live dangerously or ignore some of the basic rules of the road for a professional cricketer. These men rarely function if instructed to wear carpet slippers.
Stokes lives in an era of management teams as well as ever-present iPhones that can record and relay every second of every day – and night. Hence a big night out is always a risky business. In Botham’s era the backroom staff were not so sophisticated. He once had an agent, Tim Hudson, whose response to an allegation about Ian smoking cannabis was famously, “Doesn’t everyone?” Now it behoves not only Stokes, but also his support network, to ensure that there is no repeat of the behaviour that took him back to Bristol.
Seeing Stokes solemnly heading into the courtroom has been a depressing sight. This was an alien environment for him, no more comfortable than the prospect of a well-heeled barrister walking out to combat a swinging cricket ball propelled by Jimmy Anderson; it was an unpalatable contest. The outcome will, no doubt, be met with relief at the ECB, though it may still be startled there has not been more contrition from Stokes about his behaviour that night.
Now the Cricket Discipline Commission must decide whether to take any action against Stokes. He has not broken the law but he may have fractured some trust with his employer. Recently Steve Smith and David Warner were banned from the international game by their board for 12 months because a cricket ball had been surreptitiously scraped with sandpaper and subsequently they were found to be economical with the truth.
The two episodes are hard to compare but by most people’s standards a flick of sandpaper and a dodgy press conference does not seem so much worse than what happened in Bristol.
As ever the ECB will seek to marry principle with pragmatism. The CDC now lurches into action. Stokes may now play at Trent Bridge this week but he could be subsequently suspended later in the year. However, the nightmare scenario has been avoided. The summer of 2019 is the most exciting imaginable – before we head off into the abyss – with the World Cup, which England are far better placed to win than usual – especially if Ben Stokes is at full throttle – and an Ashes series.
For all the excellence shown by Woakes and Sam Curran in the last two Tests, Stokes at his best remains the linchpin of the side, whatever the colour of the ball. There should be no pretending that England are as good without him. Moreover, the players want him back. The dressing room provides the most accurate barometer of someone’s character and the England team like having Stokes there – not just for his cricketing prowess.
However, he needs help and an open mind. He could do much worse than consider the career of Ricky Ponting and, maybe, have a chat with him. Ponting had his moments of madness in bars as a young Australian cricketer and was dropped in 1999 after an incident in Sydney which left him unconscious in the early hours of the morning. He was not required to go to court but he acknowledged a problem with alcohol and his off-field behaviour, and with appropriate help he resolved it before going on to have the most brilliant of careers.
With some brutal self-examination on his part there is still time for Stokes to do something similar.