Aidan Smith: ‘Charlton, Murray and now Stokes – their dark shadows are revealing’

What a contrasting week this has been for two of the world’s top sportsmen. Just as Ben Stokes was having a tabloid newspaper dig up a horror story and a family tragedy, Cristiano Ronaldo was being asked by Piers Morgan: “Which of your cars is favourite?”
Stoking the fire: But was the Suns story about Ben Stokes family tragedy in the public interest?  Photograph: AFP/Getty ImagesStoking the fire: But was the Suns story about Ben Stokes family tragedy in the public interest?  Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Stoking the fire: But was the Suns story about Ben Stokes family tragedy in the public interest? Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The footballer – who would probably want me to say that he is the world’s actual, unequivocal, no-contest, toppermost No 1 – had just told Morgan’s exclusive ITV interview intended to reveal “what really makes him tick” that the fleet extended to, well he wasn’t quite sure, maybe 20.

“How many Bugattis?” asked the grand inquisitor.

“Two,” came the reply.

“How many Ferraris?” demanded the fearless interrogator, thumbscrews at the ready.

Ronaldo thought for a moment then said: “Two.”

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“How many McLarens?” roared Morgan, pinning his victim to the luxury penthouse apartment floor by standing on his neck. (OK, he didn’t do this).

“Two.” (Doesn’t the guy know any other numbers?).

Then Ronaldo revealed the Rolls-Royces were his favourite – you’ll never guess how many he has – and indeed he had travelled to this Camp David-grade summit of sporting discourse and stunning insight in the white one. “It’s more comfortable,” he confirmed. “Doesn’t hurt my back.”

A smooth ride, as was the interview. Stokes on the other hand was waking up to headlines telling the world about the 1988 murders of his half-brother and half-sister, gunned down in Christchurch by his mother’s former partner. The cricketing hero slammed the story as “immoral” and “despicable” and many agreed. The paper – it was the Sun what done it – came in for a stiff kicking. There were claims of whole deliveries being dumped in bins and calls for the paper to be banned from covering England matches.

You can understand the family not wanting to have these terrible events raked over. You can understand Stokes being desperate to protect his nearest and dearest, and outraged that his incredible summer with the bat has in a weird way caused this. Maybe you can put up a case, and especially in this press-bashing era, of the story not being in the public interest. But is it of public interest? Do people want to read about how heroes got here, be it by effortless and serene glide or otherwise? Yes they do, with the Sun pointing out their story had been compiled with the full co-operation of a family member.

Because I’m a hack and nerdily interested in the mechanics of stories, my first reaction to this one wasn’t shock or revulsion but rather: “How the heck have we not heard about it before?”

In fact, the devastating tale hadn’t stayed secret for a whole 31 years. At the time the double-murder was front-page news in New Zealand, where Stokes was born. The cricketer said the Sun’s actions had “shattered the privacy” of his parents. Not wanting to nit-pick but perhaps he didn’t mean privacy but peace for murder is never private.

Right now, even Stokes’ choice of breakfast cereal is news. And when a star emerges, almost from nowhere, editors, and particularly those at the more excitable end of the newspaper market, invariably despatch reporters to root around in the subject’s past, if not quite his rubbish bins. “Read the amazing, untold story of the nation’s new sporting god!” might be the billing. In Stokes’ case the story is sensational but was it really sensationalised? What’s it got to do with his cricket?

You might also ask what Ronaldo’s cars have to do with the latter’s football. Actually, the cars are frivolous, and Morgan’s pursuit of the detail concerning them was fatuous. The tragedy which befell Stokes’ family, however painful reviving it might be, is valuable embellishment to the portrait we have in our heads of a complex character and an extraordinary athlete.

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The killings happened three years before Stokes was born but his mother obviously lived with them while raising him. He never knew his half-brother and half-sister but I think he would say they were part of him and he them, that their stories and his are intertwined, and that he’s the product of all this: the good, the bad, the horrific.

When he was clubbing those stupendous shots for England to win the Cricket World Cup we thought the Stokes narrative was one of redemption. There had been a nightclub punch-up and a court case which had called into question his credibility, if not as an elite sportsman, then as a role model. But he came out the other side as an inspiration to junior-sized-bat-wielding kids and the man who not only won England the great prize but who pretty much saved English cricket. That story was plenty good enough. We didn’t know it was even more remarkable. Just as the Munich air disaster adds to our understanding of what it took for Bobby Charlton to become Bobby Charlton and just as the Dunblane school massacre does the same for Andy Murray – with both events only increasing our admiration for them – so it is for Ben Stokes and the dark, dark shadows in his life. This may of course be a newspaperman’s view and out of step with the prevailing mood, for the Sun’s story has been jumped upon by Twitter’s invisible righteous millions.

Back in 1988, people had a different attitude to tabloid revelations. No question, they devoured them. Some tut-tutted from the moral high ground but they, too, couldn’t get enough of the politician’s kinkiness, the pop star’s excesses and the sportsman’s back-story revealing highly unpromising beginnings. The press has invited the public’s wrath by the phone-hacking scandal and suchlike. The platforms offered by social media have encouraged many to think they are journalists and that the trained and time-served truth-seeker is obsolete. Good luck to them with that. It’s a new sport, battering newspapers to the boundaries and beyond but hopefully it won’t catch on. There’s much more fun, and fascination and drama, watching Ben Stokes in full and thunderous flow.