Ben Stokes could be banned from cricket for launching a foul mouthed tirade at a supporter who abused him for being ginger and compared him to Ed Sheeran during a tough final session for England on the opening day of the fourth Test in Johannesburg.
Stokes was picked up by television cameras and microphones shouting at a South Africa supporter ‘come and say that to me outside the ground you f------ four eyed c---”.
It is understood the fan ran down from the top of the stand and swore at Stokes for being ginger. Eyewitnesses said he compared Stokes to ginger haired pop singer Sheeran, who is a big cricket fan and publicly backed Stokes to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in December.
Stokes gestured to the fan and shouted at him as he walked up the tunnel after being dismissed for two having played a poor shot and edged to slip off Anrich Nortje.
His case is now in the hands of match referee, Andy Pycroft, who last week showed a willingness to crack down on bad behaviour when he hit Kagiso Rabada with a demerit point that suspended him from this Test match for celebrating too close to Joe Root after bowling him in the first innings of the Port Elizabeth Test.
England on Friday night released a statement in which Stokes and Ashley Giles apologised, though they are still waiting to hear if the match referee will be calling a disciplinary hearing, which would have to take place before the start of play on Saturday.
“I wish to apologise for my language that was heard on the live broadcast today after my dismissal. I should not have reacted in that way,” Stokes said.
“As I was leaving the playing area, I was subjected to repeated abuse from the crowd. I admit that my reaction was unprofessional, and I sincerely apologise for the language I used, especially to the many young fans watching the live telecast around the world.
“Throughout the Tests so far, the support from both sets of fans [England and South Africa] has been brilliant. One incident will not ruin such a competitive series, which we are determined to win.”
Stokes could face a maximum of a level three charge for “threat of assault on another player, support personnel, umpire or any other person including a spectator” if the match referee deems his comment “come and say that to me outside” as a threat of physical violence. That would carry either a one Test match suspension or ban for two white ball games, depending on which format the player is due to play next.
Stokes has been rested for the ODI series that follows this Test but he is part of the Twenty20 squad so if he is found guilty of a level three offence he would be banned for the first two games of the three match series with South Africa that starts on Feb 12.
It is more likely that Stokes will be charged with a level one offence of using an audible obscenity and will be fined a percentage of his match fee as well as given one demerit point.
Stokes has a clean disciplinary record. He reached three disciplinary points in August 2017 when he was picked up by stump microphones swearing in a Test at Headingley. Clocking up four points triggers a one Test suspension but points only remain on a player’s record for two years so Stokes is back on zero.
The outburst was the first flash of Stokes’s temper since he returned to the England side after his court case in September 2018.
He has admitted to being more emotional on this tour due to worrying about his father Gerald, who is still in hospital in Johannesburg after being taken seriously ill before Christmas.
Stokes was also angry at himself for his poor shot but by the end of play he had calmed down and went to sign autographs and pose for selfies with fans by the tunnel.
The worry for England is that the Wanderers was barely a third full and nowhere close to being the intimidating venue of old. Stokes will be a target for home fans when England go to Australia later this year for the Twenty20 World Cup and the Ashes tour in 2021-22 and Joe Root cannot afford to see his best player banned for losing his temper.
England players have been subjected to vile abuse at Australian grounds down the years and there are bound to be drunk supporters looking to provoke a reaction from Stokes to land him in trouble.
The South African players were appalled by the behaviour of their own supporter. This is the home ground for South Africa fast bowler Beuran Hendricks and he called on supporters to behave but admitted players cannot become involved in swapping abuse. “It's a public sport so I think if fans are coming hard, we certainly don't condone it as players, we expect more from fans, we are all trying to enjoy the game. We ask the fans for respect and make sure that they are enjoying the game as much as we are.
“We can't stop what the fans are doing, but we need to make sure we zone in on what is happening on the park and not really interact with anything.”
Sky issued an apology to viewers for the broadcasting of the incident. It follows an apology during the Cape Town Test when Jos Buttler was heard swearing at Vernon Philander. Buttler was fined 15 percent of his match fee and picked up one demerit point after pleading guilty to charge of using foul and abusive language.
Meanwhile, England will decide this weekend whether Jofra Archer stays in South Africa or goes home for treatment on his right elbow after he was ruled out of the final Test on the morning of the match.
Archer pulled up injured in the warm up and looked distraught when he was told by the medical team he would not be fit to play at the Wanderers. Archer is due to go home after this Test for a week’s rest before returning to South Africa for the Twenty20 series. England may now decide he should stay in South Africa to be monitored by the medical staff for an injury that is refusing to heal and has prevented him playing since the first Test.