Cricketer Ben Stokes still faces match ban for nightclub brawl despite being acquitted of affray, as England bosses wonder if his drunk and disorderly behaviour will ever come to an end
- His solicitor said the past 11 months highlights how he values his position
- Stokes is now keen to get back to cricket with it being his sole focus from now
- But the drunken brawl could have left his reputation and career in tatters
Sinking to his knees, fists clenched and face contorted as he let out a roar, Ben Stokes celebrated the key wicket that helped secure England an unlikely victory over India in the First Test at Edgbaston.
Ten days on and, standing in the Perspex-fronted dock of Courtroom One at Bristol Crown Court, the all-rounder’s reaction could hardly have been more of a contrast.
First closing his eyes before briefly glancing upwards, Stokes remained expressionless as the jury’s not guilty verdict was read out to him.
Ben Stokes´s lawyer Paul Lunt reads out a statement outside Bristol Crown Court
Outside the court, it was left to his solicitor to address the waiting press.
‘The past 11 months have served to highlight to Ben just how highly he values his position as an England representative, both in terms of the privilege that role entails and the responsibilities that accompany it,’ he said.
‘Now that the trial is over, Ben is keen to get back to cricket being his sole focus.’
And yet, despite being cleared of affray, there can be little doubt that while Stokes left the court with no stain on his character, the reputation of this cricketing colossus will take no little time to rebuild.
The incident that lead to his being charged? Using those same fists to knock two men senseless outside a nightclub.
The incident followed another England victory in September last year.
Together with teammates, he hit the town, knocking back at least ten alcoholic drinks – pints, vodkas and Jagerbombs (a mix of Red Bull and the liquer, Jagermeister).
England cricket player Ben Stokes and his wife Clare leaving Bristol Crown Court today
Then, in the early hours of the morning, he tried to gain entry into a nightclub, waving a wad of cash at a bouncer and swearing at him when he refused.
Next, it was claimed, he turned his attention to two gay men, flicking a cigarette butt at one and then mimicking their ‘camp’ behaviour.
When two other men crossed his path, the scene erupted in to violence. Both were punched to the ground, one man suffering a shattered eye-socket in the attack.
From the start, Stokes claimed he was acting in self-defence – that it was in fact he who had been protecting the two gay men from homophobic abuse.
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And yesterday, after two-and-a-half hours of deliberations, the jury found him not guilty – finally bringing to an end his 11-month ordeal. Well, almost.
The all-rounder still faces an inquiry by a disciplinary commission of the England and Wales cricket board, which could lead to him being banned from playing for a period of time.
Because this is a man touted as the future of English cricket, former vice-captain of the Test team and an international superstar – the no-holds-barred all-rounder in the mould of Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff.
Stokes’ wife Clare Ratcliffe, who accompanied her husband to court every day, cried as the verdicts were returned
Not that Beefy and Freddie were exactly angels off the pitch.
But Stokes was accused of a very serious crime at a very sensitive time.
The sport is desperate to appeal to a new audience, to children of both sexes, as it seeks to find a new identity in the modern world.
Seeing the national side tarred with the brush of yobbish, footballer-like behaviour was the last thing officials at the England and Wales Cricket Board wanted.
But thanks to Stokes – and teammate Alex Hales, who faces accusations he stamped on one of the men’s heads during the melee – those comparisons have already been made.
This is a man who pocketed more than £3million last year from playing fees and lucrative sponsorships – blowing £1.7million of it on a ‘footballer’s mansion’, the former home of Adam Johnson, the disgraced Sunderland player now in prison for sex offences.
Loyal Clare Stokes has remained at her husband’s side while they awaited the outcome of his trial
A further £695 went on a pair of blingy Buscemi leather trainers he was wearing on the night of the incident – white with gold padlocks on the back.
Yet this was no one-off incident. As we shall see, Stokes has form for bad behaviour, drunken and otherwise.
And he had been told again and again by those in the game that he had to learn to deal with the responsibilities that came with his fame.
‘Ben Stokes can’t say he was not warned,’ former England skipper Michael Vaughan told the BBC last year, following his arrest.
‘People have said to him there is only one person who can ruin your career and that is you. Nobody else.’
By last summer, Stokes was well on his way to cementing his place as one of the greatest all-rounders in the team’s history.
His feats include scoring the fastest 250-run innings in history while with ball in hand he has proved himself capable of turning any match single-handedly.
A New Zealander by ancestry and birth, his red hair and freckles come from his father Ged’s side of the family.
He also has Maori blood from distant relatives of mum Deb, a counsellor to victims of violent crime whose job frequently took her away from home,
Born in Christchurch in June 1991, the family moved to the UK when Stokes was 12, after his father, a tough rugby league player, took a coaching job.
They settled in the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, where he was teased for his accent. He did not fare well academically, leaving school with GCSEs in PE and design and technology, but excelling in sport.
England bosses wonder if his drunk and disorderly behaviour will ever come to an end
He joined Durham’s cricket academy and, at 18, made his first class debut for the county. Two years later, he was playing one-day cricket for England.
By then he had begun seeing Clare Ratcliffe, whom he married last year and with whom he has two young children, Layton and Libby.
Domesticity, however, failed to quell his notorious temper or his love of a drink.
In December 2011, Stokes was arrested and cautioned for obstructing police during a night out in Cumbria.
The cricketer later said his night in the police cell was the worst of his life.
Cricket chiefs had hoped the arrest would mark a profound turning point for the young player.
Yet, in February 2013, Stokes was sent home in disgrace after he and a roommate ignored a curfew and an ECB warning to enjoy a boozy night out during a Lions tour of Australia.
The incident led to a stern reprimand from coach Andy Flower, who told him: ‘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.’
Then in March 2014, he missed the World T20 championship after breaking his hand while punching a dressing-room locker in frustration at a poor run of form.
Team-mates duly nicknamed him ‘The Hurt Locker’.
Stokes later said of the incident: ‘I’m very passionate about what I do and get quite emotional when things don’t go well but on that occasion, it came out in a way that I regret.’
Next, Stokes was handed a verbal warning for staying out after hours following a team function on an England Lions’ tour of South Africa.
Then, in August last year, he was caught drinking in Manchester until 3am, hours before the second day of the fourth Test against South Africa.
Given that rap sheet, one might have thought he would give the booze a miss – at least during the cricket season.
But days before the Bristol incident, he admitted to The Times that he even drank during five-day Test matches.
‘Why not?’, he said. ‘We’re grown men, go out for dinner, have a few pints. I’m 26, not 14. I don’t have to drink Diet Coke with dinner.’
Which takes us to the night in question – the early hours of September 25 to be precise.
While the exact details of what happened on the evening remain unclear – Stokes himself claimed to be unable to remember much of it – many aspects are deeply unedifying.
Having earlier that day defeated the West Indies in a match held in Bristol, he and other England players went out to celebrate.
Just before 1am, Stokes and Hales left Mbargo nightclub.
An hour or so later they returned and tried to persuade bouncer Andrew Cunningham to readmit them. It was too late and he refused – despite the pair apparently offering £300 in cash.
In court, Stokes was accused of verbally abusing the doorman, who had gold teeth. ‘Your teeth make you look like a c*nt’, he allegedly said, adding for good measure that his tattoos were ‘sh*t’.
In his defence, Stokes would deny using any such offensive language.
The all-rounder still faces an inquiry by a disciplinary commission of the England and Wales cricket board, which could lead to him being banned from playing for a period of time
It was claimed he lingered outside the club with Mr Hales, and began to ‘mimic’ two openly gay men who left by a different exit, 27-year-old Kai Barry and William O’Connor, 21.
CCTV footage seen by the jury appeared to show Stokes copying their hand gestures, before lobbing a cigarette butt at Mr O’Connor’s head.
Again, giving evidence, the cricketer denied being responsible for any homophobic abuse and said he could not remember throwing the cigarette.
The couple were joined by firefighter Ryan Ali, 28, and Ryan Hale, 27, and the group began to walk down the road. Not long after, a fight broke out.
What prompted it went to the heart of the case against the cricketer.
Prosecutor Nicholas Corsellis claimed that Stokes was enraged at being turned away from the club and was looking for a fight.
‘He knocked Mr Hale unconscious and then – after enough time to pause for thought – did the same to Mr Ali,’ said the prosecutor.
‘Mr Ali received significant injuries including a fractured eye socket and required hospital treatment.
This was not a trivial moment of unpleasantness. It was a sustained episode of significant violence that left onlookers shocked at what was taking place.’
But Stokes claimed the fight began after he stepped in to defend the duo from homophobic abuse from Ali and Mr Hale, and that he was also attempting to defend his England teammate who had come under attack.
He said he believed that the force he used was ‘reasonable and entirely justified’ in the circumstances and that he was not drunk.
It was claimed that Ali was armed with a bottle and that after the fight broke out Mr Hale had equipped himself with a metal pole.
Both men were also charged with affray, although during the trial Mr Hale was found not guilty on the orders of the judge who said he had no case to answer.
Mr Hale denied using homophobic language as did Ali, who appeared in the dock next to Stokes, and who was also cleared of affray yesterday.
Once arrested, Stokes gave ‘no comment’ responses but told officers in a written statement that he stepped in to defend ‘my gay friends’ from Ali and Hale.
This was despite never having met those ‘friends’ until that night.
‘One of the males advanced and replied ‘Shut the f*ck up or I’ll bottle you,’ the statement read. ‘I felt vulnerable and frightened. I felt they could have other weapons with them.’
In the melee Hales was seen to stamp on Ali and kick him in the head, the jury was told.
Giving evidence Detective Constable Daniel Adams was asked to confirm if Hales could be seen ‘stamping on’ Ali in the footage.
‘Yes, a stamp or a kick,’ he said.
And in his closing speech 29-year-old Hales’ involvement was further highlighted by Stokes’ own barrister, Gordon Cole QC. He suggested he could in fact have been responsible for Ali’s injuries – injuries which the prosecution claimed were caused by Stokes.
Hales also faces accusations that he lied to police.
When approached by a uniformed officer who had just arrested Stokes for assault, he said he did not witness the fight and only turned up after the fracas had finished.
Hales was not arrested or charged over the fight, and was only interviewed under caution.
Nor was he called to give evidence at the trial.
Other notable absentees from the courtroom were Mr Barry and Mr O’Connor.
The ‘flamboyant’ duo were said in court to be well-known fixtures of Bristol’s night-life.
Mr Barry describes himself as a ‘model’ on online profiles, while Irishman Mr O’Connor appears equally keen to pose for the cameras on scores of shots documenting their numerous nights out on the town.
The pair are thought to live together in a tumble-down council house on the outskirts of the city.
Regardless of their colourful social lives, at the heart of the case were simple questions which only they could answer definitively.
Had Stokes been bullying them over their ‘camp’ mannerisms, as the prosecution claimed? Or had they in fact been verbally abused by Ali and Mr Hale?
References to the pair in court were kept to an absolute minimum. And at no point was the possibility of calling them as potential witnesses alluded to by either the prosecution or defence.
Summing up Judge Peter Blair said the jury were ‘likely to be wondering why’ they had not heard from Mr Barry and Mr O’Connor.
‘You must not speculate why you have not heard from any particular person or what that person might have said,’ he told them.
A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service told The Mail their evidence was disclosed to the defence ‘but it was not deemed necessary to call them as witnesses in the case’.
It means that the only version of events from them remains an interview given to The Sun newspaper shortly after the incident.
In it they claimed that Stokes was defending them after they were called ‘batty boys’.
‘We were so grateful to Ben for stepping in to help,’ Mr O’Connor told The Sun: ‘He was a real hero.’
His friend added: ‘I’m not a fighter and we didn’t want a fight. We could’ve been in real trouble. Ben was a real gentleman.’
A cricketer and a gentleman? One, undoubtedly. The other? Many will argue that Stokes has some considerable way to go to live up to that description.
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