ECB must stop hiding behind legal process and deal with Stokes

Ben Stokes: unacceptable to his sponsor, unacceptable to n standards, but still good enough for England!

The official English response to the behaviour of their star all-rounder has been like a Clint McKay slower ball, mesmerising in its reluctance to arrive at the other end. To call for a slow-motion review is hardly necessary. Here is how it unfolded. First, Stokes went out for a night in Bristol in the middle of an international series and beat a couple of guys up. England did nothing. Then, footage surfaced showing that if Stokes has any future in sport, the ring awaits. This was not the usual drunken fracas of wrestling and scragging and why-I-oughtas. Stokes – who has not denied it is him in the video – punched a man to the ground and then punched a man on the ground. Repeatedly. He may well have been provoked, but when he was battering these people they were not fighting back. Stokes is an extremely lucky man in not having caused serious injury or death.

When the footage was made public, England’s cricket authorities retained Stokes in their Ashes party, pending further thought.

Upon a few days’ further thought, they announced that he would be suspended until further notice.

Then the second wave of adverse videography hit: this time Stokes was provoked by a boy named Harvey Price, who suffers from autism, ADHD, blindness and Prader-Willi syndrome. Some part of Stokes’ brain thought it was a good idea to mimic Price in a video he made. (Note: himself, nobody else to blame.) Stokes apologised.

Some time later, England put a firm date on Stokes’ exile: he could not play while police continued to investigate him for the Bristol fight. All this did was craftily leave the door open for a delayed entrance to the Ashes. Stokes received a new contract from England. Later still, Stokes’ official place for the Ashes tour was taken by Steve Finn, a support bowler rather than a straight-out replacement. The door from Lord’s remains ajar, if caught in its own rust.

This is a revealing response from the home of cricket. By contrast, Stokes’ gear sponsor, New Balance, has terminated his ??200,000-a-year ($339,000-a-year) contract with a short, sharp statement saying Stokes’ behaviour did not “match our brand culture and values”. It’s hard to imagine any culture and values that Stokes’ behaviour does match – oh, except those of the England and Wales Cricket Board, which arrogates to itself the option of still selecting him for the Ashes if police cannot make a criminal case against him.

And then there’s Steve Waugh, who has always said it the way it is, not just in retirement but when he was playing and had more to lose. “If it was anyone in the n side,” Waugh said, “they wouldn’t be picked.”

The bizarre part of it is, considering history, Waugh is dead right. For all of the sanitised sponsor-driven plasticity that attracts ambivalence to ‘s professional sports, no n player in any field is so important that his employer would not terminate with extreme prejudice if he was shown to have done what Stokes did. No legal process necessary: he’s out. If anything, n authorities are quick on the draw, short-circuiting image problems with action that is so nimble that they often end up under pressure to backtrack.

So this is the world now, where the paragons of high ethics are the colonials and the merchants, while the gentlemen of Lord’s represent the rather more base morality of (to translate), “Holy crap, how the hell do we win the Ashes without Stokes?!?”

Or, put another way: How the hell did we end up on the high moral ground?

England’s authorities have sought cover for their disappointment over the actions of their best cricketer. The first element of this cover was also to sanction Alex Hales, who was with Stokes on the night in question, as if the great indiscretion was to “put themselves in that situation”, as it were. No, Hales’ very minor indiscretion was to put himself in that situation. Stokes’ was to beat the living daylights out of people. To draw any kind of equivalence between Hales’ and Stokes’ actions was a quisling act grossly unfair to Hales.

The next element of cover is to treat the issue as a purely legal one. In the eyes of the criminal law, Stokes is innocent until proven guilty. This is a properly serious matter: Stokes deserves the presumption of innocence under the law, because the consequences of guilt are extremely serious. If found guilty, he may go to jail.

Missing cricket is a smaller matter, and so the presumption of innocence is weakened (as it is in many kinds of lower legal tribunal). The question here is not whether the police and prosecutors may satisfy a judge or jury beyond reasonable doubt that Stokes committed an offence. The question is whether he has disgraced himself, his team, his game and those he represents, including his sponsors. The burden of proof is not beyond reasonable doubt, and it is not subject to legal technicalities or the performance of witnesses under oath. It is whether Stokes’ inebriated violence has any part in the sport of cricket. On that, everyone seems to have made their mind up except the England and Wales Cricket Board.

It is a disappointment for everyone if Stokes does not play in the Ashes series, because he is England’s best cricketer and their prospects are significantly lesser without him. He is an exciting player too, the kind of on-field personality who rouses emotions and is magnetic to the eye. Not just for competitive reasons, he is just what the series needs, wherever your loyalties lie. Not just England but the Ashes will be poorer for his absence. But it’s all his own fault: not the other guy, not us wowsers on the sidelines, not the Aussies, not the police or the media. Not Hales for “putting himself in that situation”. None of those other people threw the punches.

It goes without question that England’s cricket authorities must wriggle out of the corner their inaction has painted them into, and make a clear statement that Stokes will be banned for one year, regardless of the outcome of the criminal case. Then they can go to work on assisting this guy. Anyone affected by alcohol in the way Stokes is needs serious help, before he ends up getting really unlucky and killing someone.

The question for England, fundamentally, has little to do with the Ashes, and is wrongly being confused with the false import of a cricket series. The issue is about Stokes’ long-term rehabilitation and welfare. If he is exonerated in the legal process, what then? Does England maintain its line of no criminal conviction, no problem? If charges don’t arise or are dropped, does Stokes get put on a plane to join his team? The muddle in England’s thinking so far suggests that nobody there has an answer, and if that continues to be the case, nobody can predict where these troubles will end.

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