The batsman drops the ball onto the leg side and Ben Stokes runs after it. As he catches up with it he hurls the ball into the ground with a cry of disgust. His face is the same vivid red as his shirt. It caps an over spent screaming at his fielders, berating them as he beats his hands and curses in frustration. England’s fielding has been average. But watching Ben Stokes’ reaction to it is like watching a pipe burst the day after you’ve had it fixed.
The commentators praise his passion; they talk up his efforts to lift the team. In isolation, that may be exactly how it appears. But for a player with an affinity for hostility, who, throughout his career, has tight-roped the line between passionate aggression and violence, it is another worrying notice of the Ben Stokes that lives at a shallow depth under the surface.
On the 5th December, Stokes, along with Alex Hales, faces a two-day hearing on charges of bringing the game into disrepute. During this time, the commission will deliberate whether the two should face punishment for their part in the well-publicised drunken brawl on the 25th September 2017.
While the legal proceedings have been resolved – and, regardless of what armchair theorists believe about his fame either damning him or saving him, correctly – there is no guarantee that the two players, both of whom possess lengthy records of disciplinary issues, won’t face further sanctions for their mid-series antics.
Many commentators – and we should really take a moment to note how much of the commentary on the whole Stokes Affair came from male voices – cite Stokes missing eleven ODIs and the Ashes as “punishment enough.” No one’s mentioned whether the two ODIs missed by Hales are deemed enough, however. And while people argue over what Stokes did and didn’t do, and whether the pair deserves a fine or ban, it is worth questioning – seriously worth questioning – whether the ECB are simply ignoring the long-term implications of both players’ histories that they could, and should, address.
It’s no secret that the ECB’s handling of Stokes’ arrest and subsequent trial has been curious. A ready-made precedent appeared to be available in how Derbyshire handled Shiv Thakor when, having been arrested in the summer of 2017 on suspicion of indecent exposure, he was immediately suspended with full pay. Once charged, he was suspended from all cricketing activity by the ECB and, following his eventual conviction, released by Derbyshire.
A similar process was followed by Worcestershire with Alex Hepburn, albeit with interference from Steve Rhodes. In difficult situations, the two clubs handled themselves and their players admirably – certainly as well as anyone could expect. An objective viewer might be forgiven for thinking there was a framework in place. But the ECB demonstrated that this careful handling of criminal proceedings was the clubs’ own discretion and, in turn, deployed a confused strategy for handling Stokes’ charge of affray that, at most times, was about as transparent as my big toe.
Starting sensibly, Stokes and Hales missed the remaining ODIs against Australia in order to be available to the police. Once the investigation was concluded and evidence passed to the CPS, there was perhaps an opportunity to justifiably include Stokes in the Ashes squad. Erring on side of caution, however, Stokes was left out.
Then, after a disastrous Ashes in which England lost to a rampant pre-scandal Australia 4-0, the ECB U-turned. Despite being formally charged in January, Stokes was selected for the tour of New Zealand and then played up until the beginning of his trial. ECB spokespersons, as well as many commentators, claimed this decision was “only fair.”
One can’t help but feel the whole process went in reverse. It raises the question of whether events might have unfolded the same way had, say, James Vince – or any other player not so central to the perceived balance of England’s eleven – become involved in a violent street brawl. Question too, how, if you became embroiled in lengthy proceedings relating to a violent crime, your employer might react when thinking on the ECB’s argument that it was “unfair to keep Stokes from his livelihood.”
Rather, the whole thing felt like remarkably poor judgement on the ECB’s part – confused thinking from a board that would later go on to think The Hundred is a good idea. The overwhelming impression wasn’t one of fairness to player or fan, but rather that losing so badly trumped any criminal investigation. Anyone but Stokes, and the whole affair might have been very different – though, it is hard to imagine anyone but Stokes getting involved in such an altercation.
Much as England cricket has an unhealthy relationship with legspinners, so too does it have a worrying attitude towards its all-rounders. We want them aggressive, in-your-face. We don’t talk enough about the likes of Chris Woakes, because he’s a correct batsman and a skilful bowler with a soft-spoken manner. We want hostility. The moment we see it in the opposition, we call it a line crossed – we question Kohli when he berates fielders and umpires, decry Warner when he taunts our batsman. But when it’s our all-rounders – be it Botham throwing a punch at Chappell or Stokes knocking lamping someone in the early hours – it’s passion; it’s spectacle.
The incident in Bristol is but one moment in a long history of over-aggression verging on violence from Ben Stokes; a history of acting out in inappropriate and damaging ways. Whether it’s being sent home from a Lions tour for drinking until 5:30am (and then doing it again despite management’s warning), putting his fist through a locker in the West Indies and receiving a broken wrist for his trouble, or collecting de-merit points like they’re Pogs, Stokes has made a habit of getting himself into hot water.
But from the moment Stokes became central to England’s plans we’ve defended it, and enabled him to continue down a self-destructive path that has spilled over to hurt others – and may well do again. Stokes’ temperament has been eloquently summed up by Martha Kelner as: “A fiery disposition [that] often works to his advantage on the cricket field but on occasion it has left the people around him, particularly those charged with managing his talent, exasperated.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Stokes was talking of self-improvement, being filmed walking down the river in his native Durham speaking about how much he had mellowed since having a child. Only a few days before the Bristol brawl he was recorded stating: “The adrenaline is there. But I’d never get close to punching someone… I’ll have a few pints the night before a match. I’m 26, not 14.” It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s not far from the rhetoric David Warner spun when he adopted his The Reverend moniker. For both, it was little more than a thin façade. The short fuses had only grown shorter, and the alleged Zen was soon dismantled.
Now Warner is gone, as much a victim of the violent culture he helped fashion as a ball-tampering scandal, and it isn’t certain he will return. But are we in danger of losing Stokes eventually as well? In talking of punishment and bans, are the ECB focussing their energies in the right place? For a man whose emotions are central to his decision making, is a ban going to get the message across? Red-faced rants at colleagues might not look like much to a public who enjoy the anger, but when observed in the context of his history, it is a worrying continuation of a trend. How long before shouting at his own team becomes screaming at the opposition? (Likely not so long given his relationship with the West Indies team) How long will it be before Stokes finds himself in another situation like that of the 25th September 2017?
When Marcus Trescothick returned home from Australia in 2006, it marked the start of a sea-change in the way mental health is regarded in sport. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but a decade later we have seen massive improvements in how mental illness is treated not just in cricket, but in all sport. In sweeping Stokes’ ugly history under the carpet in favour of his perceived value to a team, are the ECB missing an opportunity to set an example on how to treat anger and over-aggression in the sport? And while we celebrate Stokes’ vitriol as little more than passion boiling over – perpetuating a boys will be boys attitude that should have died decades ago – we too are complicit in protecting and enabling a pattern of aggression that, for a player consistently his own worst enemy, can only continue if left unchecked.
Forget missing games, perhaps the ECB might focus on keeping a player they clearly value in the game, rather than patching single incidents with arbitrary punishments and possibly losing him down the line when his issues bubble over again – not to mention what might happen after he leaves the game. Would players like Alex Hales and Ben Stokes not benefit better from receiving better support for their disciplinary issues rather than sitting on the sidelines for a few days? Much as players in need of mental health support have access to professionals, would mandating long courses of anger management and counselling not be a more valuable “punishment” for players for whom self-improvement has failed?
The ECB has an opportunity in December to set a valuable precedent in the handling of players who too frequently, and too willingly, step over the line towards over-aggression and even violence. In advocating a holistic approach to addressing anger and aggression, the ECB could blaze a trail for other sports to follow – rather than sending their unruly players to sit in the corner for a while (or worse, doing nothing).
It remains to be seen what will come of the December hearing, but with the ECB famously short-sighted, there’s little hope that the players’ long-term welfare will be a consideration for a board more concerned with the balance of their team than the balance of their players.