It styles itself an “A-list hangout”, but the reality is a bit more C-list: its website trumpets The Only Way is Essex stars, Arsenal reserves, soap actors and X-Factor hopefuls and a recent “£30,000 booze bill” for socialite Tamara Ecclestone.
But Aura, a London club that actively courts famous names, was in the news for other, more tragic, reasons this week.
The St James’s nightspot was where Tom Maynard, a likeable and prodigiously talented 23-year-old Surrey cricketer, spent his last evening. He was found later that morning on the train tracks at Wimbledon Park. Maynard had been taking cocaine and ecstasy on the night before his death. He had earlier fled from police after being stopped in his black Mercedes.
A postmortem examination found Maynard was nearly four times over the legal drink-driving limit, and analysis of his hair found he had been a regular cocaine user in the previous three and a half months.
Sportsmen letting off steam after a match is nothing new, but cocaine and vodka Red Bull is a long way from the Pimms and pints of bitter in the clubhouse of popular imagination.
Those in cricket have described the inquest as a wake-up call for the sport and acknowledged that a generational divide exists at many clubs — many of which have no idea what their younger professionals are up to. Rumours had swirled for some time about hard partying in the Surrey dressing room.
While far from immune from scandal themselves, top-flight footballers are arguably well known enough to consider social drugs a risk too far. But county cricketers and club rugby union players inhabit an in-between layer of sporting celebrity — well known enough to attract an entourage but far enough below the radar of the rest of the public and the media to be able to successfully cover their tracks.
There is also something about the grind of county cricket in faraway grounds and the omertà of the dressing room that may discourage players from speaking out about their own drug use, or those of their friends.
Cricket has had the odd drug scandal down the years but they have tended to be seen as the preserve of one-off mavericks: Paul Smith, a former Warwickshire player banned for two years in 1997 after admitting to regular drug use; or charismatic swing bowler Ed Giddins, banned for 18 months and sacked by Sussex in 1996 after testing positive for cocaine.
Angus Porter, chief executive of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, said his impression was that drugs were not rife but admitted there was no way of knowing how big the problem was. While the average earnings of promising young cricket professionals are about £40,000, those marked out as future internationals may take home six-figure salaries.
“It is about the younger players in county cricket and there may be some within that who are paid high salaries and are living the lifestyle accordingly. Cricket is a short career but they all drive fast cars and spend a disproportionate amount of their income on their wheels and their nights out. What is different is the profile, the hangers-on they get, the expectations and lifestyle,” said Porter.
“My sense is that it’s not a widespread problem. I think there were probably a small group of people in that dressing room who enjoyed life and lived it hard. If there is a problem, it is small pockets — which may be in more than one dressing room — rather than across the game.”
Mark Ramprakash, who shared a dressing room with Maynard last season, said: “Of course, there is a bit of an age gap … there was a core of young players who did things together — played cricket hard, and socialised together.”
Just as rugby was forced to face up to the extent to which social drugs had become a habitual temptation for some players after former England prop Matt Stevens admitted to a serious cocaine problem in 2009, so cricket has this week been forced to look at its dressing-room culture in a new light. Damian Hopley, an ex-England and Wasps rugby player who now leads the players’ union, said: “We need to be fully aware that society has moved on. Even in the last 10 years, there is a drug culture that wasn’t there a decade ago. Football, cricket and rugby have come from a hardy drinking culture. There is now a different social dynamic out there.
Drugs are far more prevalent than they’ve ever been.