The recent trial and acquittal of Ben Stokes, followed hard on the heels by the arrest and fining of that other bad boy of England sport (rugby on this occasion), Danny Cipriani, has set me thinking. Both are young men who clearly have a problem with alcohol, which seems to let loose their inner demons. In vino veritas goes the famous Latin saying. Their aggressive instincts are bubbling away just below the surface and it doesn’t take much – well, 10 pints and a few Jagerbombs at least – to release the pressure valve.
This is not going to be a diatribe about well-paid sportsman with too much cash, a lot of spare time on their hands and not much sense in their brains; the subject has pretty well been exhausted by now. I want to examine the nature of aggression in sport. It is a word bandied about by analysts and experts in a favourable, complimentary context but it does have its dark, ugly side. Commentators remark that an aggressive shot is required by golfers on this particular hole; they do not mean that the player must set upon his partner with his golf club. To win a tennis match, a player must play aggressively, they say, in order to stand a chance of winning; they do not mean that he must stroll down to the other end of the court and give his opponent a few hearty smacks with his racquet. A cyclist is well known for being aggressive in the mountains; obviously his reputation is not based on a history of raping and pillaging throughout the villages in the valleys. One talks of a batsman trying to hit a bowler out of the attack; that does not mean he cracks his bat across the bowler’s shin. No, here we are talking about a mind set, a tactic, a particular way of playing the game. We use the word ‘aggression’ metaphorically.
Nevertheless it is significant that the metaphor is one of violence. After all, the whole point of playing a game is to defeat your opponent. In pitched battle, in armed conflict, in single combat, even in the boxing ring, the purpose is to lay low your opposite number. The difference in sport is that there are rules to prevent anybody getting hurt. “Sport is war minus the shooting,” observed George Orwell. Some people simply don’t get this; they think that the game should be played purely for fun and it shouldn’t matter whether you win or lose. That is not the way I see it. There is no point in playing if you’re not bothered about losing. That is why I can never understand why people cheat at Patience. Who are they trying to kid – themselves?
It’s important too to make a distinction between contact and non-contact sports. Aggression should always remain in the mind in a non-contact sport (though I suppose you can go across to your opponent and snarl at him but generally, I assume, that would be considered bad form). It is in contact sports that we enter a grey area. In competing for possession of the ball, there has to be a certain amount of physical contact. How much, how fierce and for how long is at the discretion of the referee and if the tackle is deemed unfair or dangerous, a foul (or worse) is awarded. But we all know from experience that not all refs are strict and not all tacklers are careful not to injure. Remember the ‘enforcers’ of the Football League in days of yore? Every team had one. Some had more than one. Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter, Nobby Stiles, Dave Mackay, Ron Harris, Tommy Smith, Graeme Souness, Roy Keane…..their names trip off the tongue in a roll of dishonour that assumes almost mystical tones, as if we yearn for a more uncomplicated era when men were men and tough, no-nonsense footballers were….. well, thugs. Aggression taken too far, we would all agree.
Now, take rugby, a game I love but never played. I always believe that people who play rugby must enjoy the rough and tumble, the wrestling match, the fight for the ball. In short what rocks their boat is a jolly good bundle, a ‘pile on’, as my children called it. There is something of a gladiatorial intensity about it, a visceral thrill in physical confrontation that is compelling and both teams, to say nothing of the spectators, relish the pitched battle. Yes, there is skill too, that is true, but violence, even if it is controlled violence, is at the heart of it all. When a captain or a coach of a rugby team talks about aggression, we all know what he means.
Cricket does not fit easily into any category. Mind you, when has it ever? Aggression can be used in a manner of speaking but it can also be very real. A slow bowler can be said to be bowling aggressively, that is, in an attacking mode, with close fielders gathered around and lots of oohs an aaahs as each ball beats the bat or cannons into pads, accompanied from time to time with an appeal so deafening that even the dog on the boundary sits up. Batsmen can be aggressive, signalling intent to knock the leather off the ball. I am reminded of Viv Richards, a batsman more than any who exuded menace even as he walked out to bat. You knew violence was at the forefront of his mind and instinctively cover fielders retreated five yards. But unless you were unlucky enough to get your hand in the way of one of his booming drives, no-one was actually going to get hurt (I leave aside the bowler’s analysis and state of mind).
Fast bowlers, however, are different. I have never met a fast bowler who does not enjoy hitting a batsman. Some are better at concealing their inward satisfaction as the ball thuds into flesh than others. All would claim that it is part of a plan to unsettle the batsman and eventually to get him out – which may be true – but the machismo is always there. Who’s the boss around here, pal? Think you can play games with me? Take that as a little reminder of your station in life. Get back in your crease. You can almost read their minds. It is no great surprise to learn that the meanest, nastiest fast bowlers are never the bravest batsmen themselves. Like all bullies – for that is what they are – they have ‘a yellow streak running right through the middle of them’, as a team-mate of mine used to say.
Which brings me to Ben Stokes. He is an all-rounder in the mould of all cricketers of his ilk. Think back to Andrew Flintoff, Ian Botham, Tony Greig, Keith Miller, Brian Close….they all shared the same fierce competitiveness, physical bravery, aggressive intent and over-my-dead-body attitude that made them so vital to their team’s success. Not one of them ever took a backward step. Gold dust on the cricket field but highly flammable in a late night bar. All of them had controversial brushes with authority but on balance, one felt, the good outweighed the bad. Or perhaps they just grew up and learned how better to control their temper.
Some cricketers never did learn their lesson and the game is littered with sad, even tragic, stories of players lost in the wilderness of self-destruction. Bobby Peel was suspended by Yorkshire for being drunk and urinating on the field and never played for the county again. Leslie Hylton was a Jamaican fast bowler who was hanged in 1955 for murdering his wife. Roy Gilchrist of West Indies said goodbye to his Test career when he pulled a knife on his captain who had instructed him not to bowl beamers. Chris Lewis of England ended up in gaol on drug smuggling charges. Andrew Symonds was the perennial bad boy of Australian cricket. Even his team-mates finally gave up on him for his repeated alcohol-fuelled misdemeanours. And we all know what happened to David Warner. There have been plenty of bad apples in the barrel down the years.
So, whither Ben Stokes? My question is not what should be done with him now. My concern is what he will do with himself in the future. This scandal is not a one-off; he has a charge sheet as long as his arm. Will he ever learn to curb his aggression? Will he ever be able to put down his aggressive temperament, so admirable when properly channelled on the pitch, once he has gained the sanctuary of the dressing room? Will it ever penetrate that thick skull that an England cricketer should be nowhere near a nightclub in the early hours of the morning? Will he eventually realise that Jagerbombs is not the recommended refuelling drink of a professional sportsman? In short, will he ever grow up?