By Derek Pringle
To explain things we don’t always understand we look for patterns and one that has emerged in the wake of the Ben Stokes trial for affray, is that England all-rounders have a habit of coming into conflict with authority.
From Ian Botham to Chris Lewis to Andrew Flintoff to Stokes and even yours truly, all have had various brushes with the powers-that-be. Among those mentioned, only Flintoff has not attended a criminal court, his drunken scrapes being more a danger to himself than others, such as the 2007 pedalo incident in St Lucia.
St Lucia, a tropical island in the West Indies, also featured in Lewis’s downfall as the place from which he smuggled cocaine, a crime for which he served half of a 13-year sentence.
Lewis had ceased to be a professional cricketer by that time so other factors might have been at play. But is there something about being two players in one that drives all-rounders to recklessness?
Drugs, in this case cannabis, were also involved when Botham was convicted for possession in 1986, a crime for which he was fined £100. A later, public admission, that he had also smoked the drug brought him a two-month ban from cricket from the Test and County Cricket Board.
Five years before that Botham had beaten a charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm after a fight with an apprentice seaman in Scunthorpe. He was not England captain at the time the trial took place after he’d lost the job but had become a national hero having flayed the Aussies with both bat and ball. Once that had happened, and with his friend Joe Neenan, the Scunthorpe United goalkeeper having already pleaded guilty to punching the seaman, no jury in the land was going to convict.
My own miscalculation was throwing some wooden stakes at a cluster of street lights on a night out with fellow Cambridge students, an act which led to the charge of behaving in a manner likely to cause criminal damage; to which I pleaded guilty.
Although my criminal record occurred before being picked for England, I was still an all-rounder with all the internal conflict that brings in trying to excel with both bat and ball.
Many, of course, will argue that all-rounders are fortunate and that being good at one thing gives them licence to fail in the other, which in turn should relax them. Of course it also gives them two fronts on which to fail, two of those being more humiliating than one – which places an added strain, especially if they refuse to accept failure in the first place.
Extra tension needs a release and most of the all-rounders mentioned sought to do that with alcohol, though that should never be used as an excuse for poor behaviour; just an explanation why it might be more prevalent among all-rounders than specialist batsmen and bowlers. The all-rounders liked other things, too, such as fishing and golf (Botham), chess (Flintoff) and clothes (Lewis). For most, though, a good drink-up was the de-stressor of choice.
This is where I’m going to absent myself from the argument, being nowhere near as talented as the others mentioned here. Although I had my moments I lacked the absolute confidence to believe that the normal rules which governed other people, especially on a cricket field, did not apply to me. Part of the make-up of truly great cricketers like Botham, Stokes and Flintoff, is their ability to deny failure, or at least put it behind them with scarcely a moment’s reflection.
Their DNA demands they take risks and subsequently to hang the consequences. It is a pact that provides thrills and spills on the field but which can have unsavoury consequences when applied to life off it.
Compromise and concession are not for them: which means no third gear and no surrender. For those who see the cricketer only, it is what makes them so special as competitors, as they never know when they are beaten. For them, no position is beyond repair even when the evidence suggests otherwise.
But are all-rounders prone to these excesses of emotion and behaviour or are such people simply drawn to be all-rounders? Steven Sylvester is a sports psychologist who works with leading footballers and cricketers. He believes that all-rounders have far greater pressure placed on them than other players, given there is an expectation for them to win matches with both bat and ball.
“All-rounders are often the first name on the team sheet after the captain, which means they receive a lot of scrutiny,” said Sylvester. “As such, they need special care and attention from management – not so much in the form of performance psychology but emotional support.”
Of course, all that stuff was in its infancy when Botham played for England. Then the team provided the support, especially on tour, though with everyone having their own careers to take care of, it was rarely effective.
There is a far bigger care network around the team now provided by the ECB, though part of their philosophy has been to reduce any nannying in favour of players taking responsibility for their actions – something which, on the evidence of that night out in Bristol last year, has yet to happen.
It took Botham some time and it looks to be taking Stokes a while longer, but the trick is learning where the boundary rope is and then adjusting to the very different game played either side of it.
In cricket, second chances rarely come. Let us hope England’s latest all-rounder takes the one he has been given.
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