Ben Stokes (pictured) has been known to damage his dressing-room locker after having an off-day with the ball
So short is his temper, that when Ben Stokes – English cricket’s answer to Superman – makes a rare low score with the bat or has an off-day with the ball, he has been known to damage his dressing-room locker.
Aware that the match-winning all-rounder has a self-destructive fuse, opponents goad him with insults designed to send him into a blind rage and put him off his game.
England’s team psychologist has tried everything to help Stokes keep his cool, the latest tactic being to urge him to slowly and methodically pack every item of equipment in his kitbag on returning to the pavilion, in the hope that he might calm down during the ten minutes it takes to complete this laborious task.
According to those close to the flame-haired firebrand, whose thrillingly explosive playing style is comparable with that of the legendary Sir Ian Botham, it seemed to be working. In the early hours of Monday, however, when he became embroiled in a shameful street brawl, it appeared nothing would have stopped him in his tracks.
The behaviour of this 6ft colossus outside a Bristol nightclub – where he had been drinking with team-mates to celebrate a victory over the West Indies – was caught on a mobile phone video, obtained by a red-top newspaper.
The trouble began after Stokes and other England players went on a bar crawl in an area of Bristol thronging with students out for fun during ‘fresher’s week’ at the city’s university.
According to one witness, when the cricketer was drinking in a club called Mbargo he heard two gay men being insulted, and when he spoke out to defend them an argument broke out. At that point, no punches were thrown. But when Stokes and Hales left the club, and by chance met the alleged abusers again in the street, a fight broke out.
Paying no heed to fellow England player Alex Hales, who was apparently trying to draw him away from trouble, and summoning the freakish strength that enables him to smite sixes over the grandstand roof, Stokes powered into action, striking what appeared to be a bottle from one man’s hand. The sound of shattering glass echoed around the deserted street.
His night out in Bristol was caught on camera and the cricket star was later arrested by police
Then, after an ugly pavement grapple, he got up, advanced on the second man, and floored him with one devastating blow. By now the first man was backing away, but Stokes made for him in his bright white trainers and slapped him.
The video, apparently shot from a building overlooking the fracas, spans barely 60 seconds yet, according to a witness, the cricketer threw 15 punches. For Stokes, the England Test team and cricket as a whole – still regarded as a game played by gentlemen – the repercussions of this unedifying incident will be disastrous. Now 26 years old, and thought to have matured sufficiently to have been made England vice-captain, Stokes was held overnight in police cells. One of the two men needed hospital treatment for facial injuries.
In a few weeks, he was due to travel with the team to Australia for this winter’s Ashes series, yet if by then he faces trial for a potentially imprisonable offence, it seems unthinkable that the England management would allow him to board the plane.
Indeed, despite the suggestions Stokes might have been defending someone from homophobic abuse, his actions were so shocking that his place in the team must be in doubt, even if he is not charged.
The England and Wales Cricket Board, which yesterday suspended Stokes and Hales ‘until further notice’, will also want to know why the player – who once admitted losing count (at 20) of the number of ‘Jagerbomb’ shots he had drunk on a night out – was again out on the tiles.
His sponsors must also be deeply concerned. In addition to New Balance, he has a lucrative contract with Red Bull – deals which, together with the £1.7million he receives for playing in the Indian Premier League for just six weeks a year, and the £700,000 he is paid for representing England – are estimated to boost his annual income to well over £3million.
Then there is his family. On October 14, Stokes is due to marry his fiancee, Clare Ratcliffe, 27, the mother of their infant children Layton and Libby, with whom he lives in his Durham mansion.
Miss Ratcliffe, from Somerset, met Stokes when she went to watch a cricket match, and he chatted her up whilst fielding on the boundary. Whether the wedding will now go ahead on schedule remains to be seen, but she is said to be ‘devastated’.
Following events from their home in New Zealand, his parents, former rugby league player and coach, Ged, and mother Deb – ironically a counsellor who works with victims of violent crime – must feel the same way. So, too, must the England selectors. For Stokes, whose astonishing feats include scoring the fastest 250-run innings in history, is their undisputed talisman – a player of such rare brilliance that he is capable of winning any match single-handedly, whether with bat, ball, or his extraordinary fielding.
The star was seen standing over a man who was on the ground following the incident in Bristol
If anyone is taking satisfaction from this saga, it can only be the Australians, who feared he would demolish them this winter – and whose players and supporters would no doubt jibe him mercilessly if he was to make the Ashes tour.
Stokes was described to me as a ‘mild-mannered, kindly’ man when not in the heat of battle, and the first to lend his shoulder to team-mates with problems.
So what could be behind his confrontational manner? The obvious place to look is his childhood. Though many England fans prefer to forget it, Stokes is actually a New Zealander by ancestry and birth. His red hair and freckles come from his father’s side of the family, but he also has Maori blood from his mother’s distant relatives – a connection of which he is proud enough to mark with a tattoo on his arm.
Born in Christchurch in June 1991, his mother’s work frequently took her away from home, so he spent much time with his father, a teak-tough rugby player so determined to get back into action after injuring a finger that he had it amputated at the knuckle rather than waiting for it to mend.
It was a streak his son inherited. When Stokes was 13, the family moved to the UK, where his father took a coaching job. They settled in the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, where he was teased for his accent and did not fare well academically – leaving school with just two GCSEs – but earned popularity for his sporting heroics. Yet as a friend told me, ‘Trouble always seemed to follow him around, like a moth to a flame.’
In a school rugby match, an opposition player took such a dislike to him that he ran up and punched Stokes just as he was about to take a conversion kick. A melee ensued and the game was abandoned. He also broke his hand during a cricket match after an altercation with the pavilion door.
That trouble continued after his career began. In 2013, when he toured Australia with the England Lions (effectively, the national reserve team), Stokes and a team-mate were flown home in disgrace after persistent late-night drinking. Ordering him to pack his bags, coach Andy Flower gave it to him straight: ‘You don’t want to play for England. You just want to p*** it up the wall with your mates and have a good time.’
The England and Wales Cricket Board yesterday suspended Ben Stokes (pictured) and Alex Hales
Stokes, then 22, swore at him and vowed to prove him wrong. By dint of his ‘freakish’ talent, as the former England Michael Vaughan describes it, he has done so.
But the red mist has continued to descend at regular intervals. In 2014, when he fractured his wrist by smashing it into a dressing-room cupboard, after getting out for a duck in Barbados, team-mates nicknamed him ‘The Hurt Locker’.
Another unseemly confrontation came after he was ‘sledged’ – the cricketing term for insulted out on the pitch – to breaking-point by the temperamental West Indian player Marlon Samuels. When Stokes was bowled out, Samuels mocked him with a salute; Stokes squared up to him and let fly with a volley of abuse, and it seemed for an instant that blows might be exchanged.
We might have thought, for the sake of his career, that he would give up the booze – at least during the playing season – but no. Recklessly, during a recent interview with The Times magazine, he even admitted to drinking during a five-day Test match. ‘Why not? We’re grown men, go out for dinner, have a few pints,’ he said. ‘I’m 26, not 14. I don’t have to drink Diet Coke with dinner.’
Would anyone agree? Well, we might ask Botham, whose gargantuan appetite for red wine (not to mention cannabis and women) apparently did nothing to impair his fabled career.
And also Freddie Flintoff, suspended and stripped of the vice-captaincy after a drunken night out in St Lucia at the Cricket World Cup, which culminated in him being rescued from a capsized pedal-boat.
Of course, even these other larger-than-life England stars were never involved in scrapes like this. Yet a source who knows them all says there is something in the DNA of the great all-rounder that means they are constantly teetering on the edge of danger.
‘If you have this enormous, testosterone-fuelled drive that gives you the ability to crash, bash and destroy on the cricket field, then it is nigh-on impossible to switch it on and off at will, and it can also be enormously self-destructive,’ says the insider, who asked not to be named. ‘When he’s on the field, Ben Stokes sees it as his job to destroy everyone who stands in his path and he does it with ruthless efficiency.
‘When you look at that video, I think he had gone into the same mind-set. He looked like he does when he’s battling it out for England, and he has to be the last man standing. That’s not to excuse his behaviour, but it might explain it.’
Perhaps so. But for his own sake, and that of the sport he dominates, we must hope this is the last we see of Ben Stokes in this kind of incident.
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