Ben Stokes must learn the lessons of brush with career oblivion
That was quite a hangover.
Almost 11 months after a few England players popped out for "a couple of drinks" after their victory over West Indies in an ODI at Bristol, Ben Stokes can resume his career without fear for the consequences of what should have been a celebratory night.
Had Stokes been found guilty, he not only could have faced a jail sentence - the charge of affray carries a maximum jail term of three years in the UK - but the possibility of a long ban from the game. England's World Cup and Ashes plans could have been in jeopardy. Stokes' career and reputation certainly were.
As the verdict sank in, Stokes leant across the dock and offered his hand to Ali. Ali shook it, as he had at the start of the day when Stokes had made the same gesture. Both will, no doubt, go away wiser men.
Stokes sat impassive throughout most of the trial. He laughed once - when his barrister referred to the shoes he was wearing as "booties" - but rarely reacted to evidence be it good or bad. Even when he rose to hear the verdict, he appeared the calmest man in the court. While his wife and agent wept with relief and joy, he simply shut his eyes for a moment. He didn't seem to be a man who has much difficulty controlling his emotions.
There has, however, already been a cost. Quite apart from Stokes' earning opportunities - he lost at least one sponsorship deal in the wake of the incident - he also lost an opportunity to play in an Ashes series, as well as the England vice-captaincy. That will sting for some time.
He may not be completely out of the woods, either. The ECB's Cricket Discipline Commission (CDC) will also review the episode and decide if action needs to be taken. It may well be they decide that Stokes, having missed an Ashes tour, has been punished enough.
The point is, aspects of this incident will rumble on. And with the CDC hearings expected to be quasi-judicial, there will an element of formality - and as a consequence a lengthy period of time - that will string this episode out well into the autumn.
The cost to the wider game is harder to quantify. Cricket struggles to make it on to the back pages of newspapers these days, so to see it all over the front pages - and making a rare cameo on free-to-air TV - for all the wrong reasons will concern authorities eager to build the image of a family sport full of wholesome heroes.
But Stokes was found not guilty. And while a lot of mud was thrown at him in recent days, not a lot of it stuck. So while, at various times, the prosecution attempted to portray him as a homophobic bully, an arrogant snob who looked down on those of lesser wealth and an out-of-control drunk with an anger management issue, there was very little evidence to back up such claims.
There was not, remember, any complaint from the two men - Kai Barry and William O'Connor - whom the prosecution alleged he abused. Just the opposite. Quite why they were not called upon to give such evidence in court remains unclear and unsatisfactory, but they have given interviews thanking Stokes for his intervention. It seems odd to wilfully ignore that.
And while the prosecution did accuse Stokes of lying, the judge noted in his summing-up that Stokes' version of events was - from the moment he was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car to the day he spent being cross-examined on the witness stand - admirably consistent. Indeed, what the prosecution termed his conveniently selective memory often seemed deeply inconvenient.
While CCTV footage clearly showed a man running towards him with an iron bar, Stokes consistently said he did not recall it. While Ali admitted he took Stokes in a headlock, Stokes insisted he did not recall it. And while he maintained he heard Barry and O'Connor subjected to homophobic abuse, he couldn't remember any of the details. He refused - quite rightly - to make up what he couldn't recall but it weakened his defence as a consequence.
There were other bad moments for him in court. After a day of the prosecution putting questions in good areas, they provoked a waft. His suggestion that he was looking up at the night sky and talking to God outside Mbargo was, no doubt, the result of frustration and intended as a joke. It fell very flat. Equally the footage that was purported to show him flicking a cigarette butt at O'Connor was never satisfactory explained. And, while it is not relevant to this case, the footage of him apparently mocking Katie Price's disabled son, Harvey, that emerged at around the same time as the incident, remains as troubling as any of the details heard during the trial.
But beyond that, the picture that emerged of him in court was of an honest, brave, strong (mentally, morally and physically), straightforward though not especially sophisticated man with a deep sense of responsibility for those around him. A man who felt compelled to intervene when he saw what he perceived to be bullying; a man who was seen shepherding two vulnerable men to safety after one of them had been struck with a bottle; a man who urged his friend, Alex Hales, to go back to the hotel and leave him to take the rap once the police had intervened.
If that sounds an overly sympathetic interpretation, let us consider, just for a moment, a sliding doors moment. Let us consider that Stokes, in the early hours of September 25, had spotted an argument going on in the street and chosen to look the other way. Let us imagine that, once a bottle had been used as a weapon, he had fled the scene to ensure his own safety. He could, no doubt, have avoided the experience of this court case and played a full part in the Ashes. But would it have been the right thing to do? Might this have been the personal version of a Just War? There's no simple answer to such questions.
There are, no doubt, lessons to learn. For a start, Stokes (and co) may reflect that being out at 2.30am midway through an ODI series is not commensurate with the behaviour of an international sportsperson and suggests a failure to understand the level of sacrifice required to enjoy a sustained career at that level. It is true there was no curfew in place at the time - partly as a result of that night, that has now changed and players are expected to be back in the team hotel by midnight - but that just requires the players to act with some restraint and responsibility. The number of alcoholic drinks; the smoking: none of it was pretty; none of it was clever. Stokes may reflect that, as vice-captain in particular, he should have set a better example.
He might reflect, too, that he could have made several better choices during the night. Watching CCTV footage of him outside the Mbargo nightclub after he had been denied re-entry was agonising. You could feel his team - his agent, Neil Fairbrother, and wife, Clare, attended every session of the trial - urging him to 'Go home, Ben; for God's sake go home!' Instead, he hung around the front of the club for 20 minutes or so. It was after 2am. It was no place for him - for anyone, really - to be. He has to learn from such experiences.
There is a huge amount of goodwill towards Stokes from his team-mates and the team management. And that reflects very well on him. But he might also reflect that, having been sent home from a Lions tour in 2013 after one too many nights out and, in 2014, having broken his hand on a locker in Barbados due to a flash of temper, he really should have learned these lessons already. He has it in him to be one of the greats. It would be a terrible shame to waste it.