Ben Stokes has apologised for his “unprofessional” actions, but could still face an ICC sanction following an angry exchange with a spectator who likened him to the singer, Ed Sheeran, on the first day of England’s final Test against South Africa.

Stokes, England’s vice-captain, paused as he left the field following his dismissal and, in response to comments from a spectator, appeared to say: “Come say that to me outside the ground, you f***ing four-eyed c***.”

Stokes’ words were picked up by broadcasters and, though not shown live, were broadcast shortly after his dismissal. They were soon shared multiple times on social media. The spectator’s comments were not broadcast, though it is understood that the individual involved, who is middle-aged, swore at Stokes and suggested he looked like Sheeran.

“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 in a statement after the close of play. “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.”

Use of an audible obscenity during an International Match is considered a Level One offence – the least serious – and carries a penalty of one demerit point. Stokes does not have any active demerit points, so the penalty – and any accompanying fine – would amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.

In the unlikely event his words are considered a threat of assault, however, then he could be charged with a Level Three offence. If that charge was upheld, Stokes would be hit with five or six demerit points and would be facing a suspension.

It is also possible his words will be considered ‘conduct that brings the game into disrepute’ which would leave him open to anything from a Level One to a Level Four offence. Level Four offences are the most serious.

The match referee may well take several factors into mitigation. For one thing, the gravity of the comments aimed at Stokes may be considered, while there will also be some thought to Stokes’ state of mind as he deals with the ongoing illness of his father, Ged, who remains in hospital in the city having fallen ill at the start of the tour.

The ECB may also be underwhelmed with the incident. The sponsors of Test cricket in England are Specsavers, while it is not so long since Stokes helped England win the Leeds Test in partnership with the bespectacled Jack Leach.

Ashley Giles, Managing Director for England Men’s Cricket, added: “It is disappointing that a member of the public has gone out of their way to abuse Ben as he was leaving the field. Ben is fully aware that he should not have reacted in the way that he did and apologises for his actions.

“In addition to this incident, members of our support staff were subjected to personal abuse during and after the day’s play. We have requested to the venue to ensure that security and stewarding are enhanced for the remainder of the match so that players’ and staff members can go about their duties without provocation.”

Sheeran, the multi-awarding-winning pop star, was described as Stokes’ “biggest fan” when announcing the allrounder’s nomination for BBC Sports Personality of the Year, an award that Stokes won in a ceremony in Aberdeen in December.

After the conclusion of the day’s play, Stokes came back out of the dressing-room to chat to spectators – including those by the players’ tunnel, where the incident took place – and to sign autographs.

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