Hayter column: why Ben Stokes must not be given an Ashes reprieve

By Peter Hayter

Officials of the England and Wales Cricket Board have a history of bringing dead stories back to life. Remember Colin Graves, shortly after his appointment to the post of ECB chairman, opening the long-shut door that had separated Kevin Pietersen from the England team?

So for Tom Harrison, their chief executive, and director of England Cricket Andrew Strauss to indicate last week that Ben Stokes may play in the Ashes after all neatly fits into an established pattern, in this case throwing an apparently resolved situation back into confusion and, in the process, potentially causing the players who are Down Under a distraction they could surely do without.

This time last week we were digesting the thoughts of coach Trevor Bayliss, who seemed to have put an end to all speculation over the availability of the England all-rounder, suspended by the Board until further notice, pending an ECB internal inquiry and an active police investigation following his arrest outside a Bristol nightclub on September 25. Simply put, Bayliss said he and they were planning without him.

Taken with the words spoken by skipper Joe Root on arrival, that his friend’s absence would, “give others opportunities to stand up, put their stamp on Test cricket and do something special”, those comments appeared to close the book on this sorry tale, at least until after the upcoming series against Australia, for which clarity much thanks.

But when the ‘c’ word appeared again on Sunday, this time from the mouth of Strauss, it did so in a somewhat different context.

“What we all want is clarity on what that situation is and how much cricket he will be missing for England. We’re keen to get into that and move this forward but we’re in the hands of the police.

“There’s two different potential disciplinary procedures he has to go through, one is the ECB’s own internal one and the other is any potential police action,” said the only England skipper to win in Australia for 30 years. “Until we know more from the police it’s very hard for us to put a timeline on anything.”

And that teed up Harrison for his go.

“We have to get that balance between censure and support absolutely right,” said Harrison.

“Cricket’s response to this will show the value of the game in the best light. We will quickly recover to where the game is, seeing and doing its best to rehabilitate reputations on the field and try to get Ben and Alex (Hales) back to where the fans are really behind them.”

Answers on a postcard, please, as to what any of that actually means. But if the gist of it is that should the police decide not to press charges, and the ECB’s inquiry panel chooses to show leniency, Stokes might find himself talking part in the Ashes after all, then I’m afraid I really must be missing something.

For, everything considered,  it is hard to escape the feeling that if the man arrested on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm was anyone other than their star player and best hope of beating Australia, such discussion and speculation would have ended weeks ago.

Clearly Stokes does need support; he needs support in understanding that, whatever the circumstances (and in this case his defenders insist he and Hales came to the aid of two gay men who had been suffering homophobic abuse), it is not a good idea to be throwing punches any time, any place, anywhere, let alone outside a nightclub at 2am, one of which, unless the video footage has been tampered with, was aimed at a man with his arms raised in surrender and with Hales shouting: “Stokes, enough!”

If drink had any part to play in this, as his injudicious public comments about losing count at 20 Jagerbombs suggested it might have, he needs support to understand this is a problem he really, really needs to address.

Similarly, it has been said, as regards the issue of anger management.

None of which he will be able to do if he is jetting down to Australia to play cricket for England under the intense spotlight of the Ashes later this winter, whether he, the England team or ECB officials like it or not.

Out of action: The ECB should stop raising expectations and stand firm on Stokes’ absence from the tour (photo: Getty Images)

As for censure, whether or not the police take action of their own, while it goes without saying that the punishment should fit the crime, it appears those officials might need reminding of some previous examples in order to concentrate their minds.

ICC banned South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada for one Test match this summer for swearing at Stokes in the first Test at Lord’s.

Kevin Pietersen was dropped for the final Test against South Africa in 2012 for alleged disruptive behaviour in the home dressing room, including sending derogatory texts about his captain Strauss to his mates in the other one. When they believed him guilty of more of the same during the last Ashes tour, including inappropriate whistling, they sacked him for good.

During the 2007 World Cup, Andrew Flintoff lost the ODI vice-captaincy and was dropped for a match after a night on the sauce ended up with him in the drink having fallen from a beachside pedalo.

And, lest Australians forget, David Warner missed all but one of his side’s ICC Champions Trophy matches in 2013, two further tour matches and, because the first and second Tests of that series in England were back-to-back, both of them after receiving a one Test ban and a fine for slapping Joe Root in Birmingham’s Walkabout watering-hole, in effect a six-match ban.

Harsh?

Consider, though, what Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland said when enforcing it.

“David Warner has done a despicable thing. I don’t care what explanations people might want to put up. There is no place for violence in society, and there is no place for Australian cricketers to be finding themselves in that position.”

Whatever the police decide to do, as Harrison, Strauss and the members of the ECB inquiry panel ponder their next move, they could do worse than take those words into account.

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