The England and Wales Cricket Board employs some exceptionally smart people, so it’s entirely possible that we’re all missing a trick here. Still, on the face of things, their latest take on the Ben Stokes affair seems like their most bewildering yet. How can you ban a cricketer from playing for England while police decide whether or not to press charges, and then lift the ban as soon as charges are brought?
Certainly, the short-term thinking makes a certain pragmatic sense. It could be months - a year or more - before Stokes appears in court accused of affray for his involvement in a street fight in Bristol last September. The ECB have clearly reasoned that suspending Stokes for that entire period would run the strong risk that Stokes could turn his back on the international game altogether.
Already, Indian Premier League franchises are jostling into position to secure his signature at next week’s auction. Stokes will be playing plenty of cricket from now until his court date. The ECB have reasoned that he might as well be playing some of it for them.
But take a step back, away from the daily grapple of reactive PR and media firefighting, and consider the story from start to finish, and what emerges is a far more confusing picture, of an organisation groping their way through the crisis, faltering mis-step following faltering mis-step, wrong-footed from the very moment reports of Stokes’s arrest began to appear. Ever since then, it is hard to shake the sensation that the ECB has pretty much been making things up as they went along.
Of course, you can hardly blame the ECB for being at the mercy of events. Rather, it is the way these events have been handled that is the issue here. At every juncture, the ECB has displayed the sort of moral cowardice that results when an organisation is so petrified of consequences that it invariably seeks the path of least resistance.
A more sure-footed organisation, one with a strong sense of principle and the courage of its convictions, might have set out its stall at the very outset. Sit the important people around a table, consider the issue from all sides, and then make the call: either Stokes plays in the Ashes, or Stokes doesn’t play in the Ashes, pending police action.
Instead, startled by the media outcry, and expecting the police to reach a quick decision, they played for time. They hastily imposed a ban that wasn’t a ban, selected Stokes whilst simultaneously suspending him. It all seemed rather clever at the time: acknowledging the public outcry, whilst at the same time - and with a cheeky wink - maintaining the illusion that Stokes could still fly out to Australia, you know, at some point, just as soon as all this has blown over.
It was a non-decision that kicked the real decision down the road. And for all its deftness, it cast a Stokes-shaped cloud over the tour which Joe Root and his side spent weeks trying their best to ignore. We lost count of the number of times an England player said they were trying their best to put the Stokes business out of their mind. But while there was no clarity, there could be no closure. As England trudged and toiled their way across Australia, Stokes remained the ghost at the feast, his kit freshly pressed, his hotel rooms booked, his absence felt almost as keenly as his presence would have been.
The sheer farce of it all was brought into sharper focus when Stokes was abruptly pictured getting on a plane to fly to New Zealand to play some domestic cricket for Canterbury, a decision that again completely blindsided the ECB top brass, even though someone in the building must have signed off on a No-Objection Certificate. Still, they maintained the line that nothing had changed. England lost the Ashes 4-0 with Stokes still nominally in the squad, the 17th man that could never be chosen. England named their squad for the one-day series. Again, Stokes was in it.
Now he is back for real, perhaps the only cricketer in history to earn an international call-up *because* he has been charged with a crime. And by the way, no comment is offered here, one way or the other, on what an appropriate punishment might be. You are unlikely to get much consensus on that score, in any case. The indications coming out of the Stokes camp are that there is a good deal of unseen context to that infamous video footage on The Sun’s website, some of which will undoubtedly come out in court.
But whether you advocate banning Stokes for life, suspending him indefinitely, suspending him for six months or a year, or simply giving him a slap on the wrist for bringing the game into disrepute, surely we can all agree that the current mess is one that reflects well on nobody. And still, despite dozens of statements and yards of newsprint expended, we are no closer to knowing what the ECB actually think of what happened in Bristol that night. Are they standing by their man or not? Do they think it was blown out of proportion? Are they secretly furious?
Perhaps the best clue we have, in fact, is a letter that chief executive Tom Harrison wrote to England’s Ashes squad shortly before Christmas, reminding them of their off-field duties in the wake of the incidents featuring Jonny Bairstow and Ben Duckett. We don’t know what was in the letter for certain, and perhaps it is purely coincidence that over the subsequent days, England player after England player strode out in front of the press and started talking about how the team had a duty to project the best possible image to “sponsors” and “families”.
As far as guiding principles go, that’s pretty much all we have to go on. For the most part, however, the ECB has been almost stupefyingly reactive, always fighting the nearest fire, not the largest. It banned Stokes because it feared the outrage of the public. Now it has reinstated him because it fears the outrage of Stokes. There’s a symmetry there, but you’d struggle to call it logic.