The price of entry does not include the right to think of the most vile personal insult and voice it
It turns out Ben Stokes really could pick a fight in an empty stadium. Rain and poor forecasts left the Wanderers deserted across large areas at the weekend. Yet somehow they found each other. A bespectacled, belligerent heckler and the world’s angriest batsman, fuming after being dismissed by Anrich Nortje for only two runs.
We don’t know what was said to provoke Stokes to one of the more traditional threats, of course. There were initial suggestions it was a comment about his father, seriously ill in a Johannesburg hospital. That would certainly afford mitigation.
The price of entry does not include the right to think of the most vile personal insult and voice it.
Yet that version of events is contradicted and – given Stokes’ recent history, given the career jeopardy he has endured – one might have hoped whatever the circumstances he had learned to temper his reactions with a thousand-mile stare and a slow count to 10.
Maybe he just got caught in the wrong place, at the wrong time and Stokes will never be the guy who turns the other cheek, no matter how many BBC Sports Personality plaudits he wins.
Look, that’s in essence what the public loves about him.
He’s a fighter – sometimes literally – a competitor, a warrior. Like many of the best sports people, that rage inside is part of his greatness. Remove it from Stokes and he might be half the player. That is the fear.
Yet, equally, absences of discipline cloud focus and can have severe consequences. Stokes missed an Ashes tour pending a trial in 2017-18, he was passed over for the England captaincy because of a past pock-marked by explosions.
A fleeting altercation with an idiot late in the day does not compare but it shows how vulnerable he can be to an interruption from any random interloper. He cannot let it lie. He doesn’t know when he has won.
Locals in the stand identified the loud-mouthed culprit to reporters, but did not back up the idea that Stokes had been assailed by horrid barbs about a family member.
The witnesses said the comment to Stokes made reference not to his father, now recovering from a serious medical episode, but to Ed Sheeran. Possibly hair colour was a factor, too.
Maybe Stokes is a fan, or simply misheard.
Either way, he reacted as if confronted with an unacceptable level of abuse. “Say it to me outside the ground, you f****** four-eyed c***,” said Stokes. And then what? Contained within is an unmistakeable threat of physical violence. Is that a road Stokes should be travelling, given his recent past?
The consequences from here depend very much on the ICC’s take on colloquial English – whether they think Stokes was merely responding in kind to an intrusion on his personal space, or whether they see his words as a threat, a genuine invitation to a fight.
A threat to a spectator would then be regarded as a level three transgression and carry sufficient demerit points to see him banned from upcoming white ball fixtures, or maybe a Test.
Following Kagiso Rabada’s ban from this Test for aggressively celebrating the wicket of Joe Root in Port Elizabeth, the ICC will also know South Africa will be observing their reaction very closely.
Stokes might get away with a level one offence and a single demerit point on an otherwise unblemished record, but that is purely a matter of interpretation.
The ECB were refusing to make any comment until they knew what charge had been levelled, if any at all. Stokes wisely got his apology in first.
As for the FEC in question, he quickly returned to the back of the stand where he sat with friends in a glassy-eyed state. It appears two of them had swapped shirts, too, in an attempt to avoid identification.
His crude response to a South African misfield, however, delivered in the presence of reporters, rather blew his cover. Still, the stewards in the ground seemed utterly unconcerned, so we might presume he wasn’t the worst specimen they had encountered.
There is a reason the Wanderers ground is called the Bullring and that the pathway leading down from the team rooms to the arena is now covered.
Handy for roof advertising, true, but the main motivation is to protect players from levels of abuse that were increasingly unacceptable. Crowds on the bank to the right and in the green-seated stands to the left, used to give visiting players a quite spectacular welcome, as Kevin Pietersen will testify.
Now, the players disappear into a tunnel, hear the noise beyond and emerge into a cacophony.
Not that there was much of that this weekend. A morning lost to rain had dampened the enthusiasm even of the English contingent and it was a very subdued Bullring when play eventually.
Even if Stokes escapes ICC sanction, even if we accept he was without blame for the start of this latest confrontation, it is not a good look for England’s vice-captain to be rowing with those beyond the boundary ropes, whatever the circumstances.
All that could make it worse was if Stokes was England’s captain – as some think he could be and as he would certainly like to be.
The England captain talking about FECs would be quite a different matter. And with Stokes, brilliant cricketer though he is, that incendiary moment always seems an arbitrary spark away.
At the very least it remains a perceived point of weakness, one that Australia and some very opinionated fans would not be too proud to exploit on the next Ashes tour in 2021.
Jonny Bairstow was undoubtedly targeted on the last visit, when Stokes was not present, but there is no doubting the identity of England’s most important player next time.