HARSHEST PENALTIES MUST BE SERVED UP BY THE ECB
You could tell from Andrew Strauss’ demeanour that he feared the Ben Stokes affair was about to get very serious indeed. The Director of England cricket is paid to be sensible, sound and even-handed in all his public and private dealings, and it’s his nature anyway.
So he displayed no outwards signs of emotion when facing the cameras to explain his position over the unholy mess Stokes had got himself and the England team into on the eve of the announcement of their Ashes squad. But when Strauss shows no outward signs of emotion this usually means a tumble-dryer full of them are smashing around inside him.
Clearly, the first was a volcanic anger, and he and English cricket have every right to feel as let down by the behaviour of the best player on the planet as it is possible to feel. The second was the growing concern that Stokes might well have made himself unselectable, not only for the Ashes series this winter, but also for the foreseeable future. The third was acute embarrassment that a player ultimately under his charge, and one with well-known drink and behavioural issues at that, was permitted to get into this situation in the first place.
Only the players and, presumably, their agents are privy to what rules and regulations govern their behaviour these days. Back in 1997, however, the ECB went so far as to spell them out in their handbook for international cricketers, as follows: “As an England cricketer you will come under the most intense public scrutiny, and therefore it is essential that you present the right image in terms of both your appearance and behaviour on and off the field, and that you conduct yourself at all times in a manner befitting an international sportsman representing his country.”
Not that any England player should need reminding, but the above is, selfevidently, a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. Curfews? Really? England coach Trevor Bayliss has already described some of them being out at 2.30am in a Bristol nightclub in the middle of an ODI series as “very unprofessional”. It was also begging for trouble. Last Sunday, Stokes barged into so much of it that it put his participation in the upcoming Ashes at risk and placed a huge question mark against his future in the game. Then, after video footage appeared allegedly showing the 26-year-old involved in a scuffle which resulted in a 27-year-old man ending up in hospital and caused the police to arrest Stokes on suspicion of causing
Stokes barged into so much trouble that it not only put his Ashes tour at risk, but also a huge question mark over his future in the game
actual bodily harm, it seemed like everyone’s worst fears would be realised sooner rather than later.
Leave aside whether or not the police do press charges for a criminal act that carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, albeit for repeat offenders.
Ignore what abuse Aussie crowds and players might unleash on Stokes should he travel to Australia, that he might have to return to face a magistrates’ court any time, nor that England stand little or no chance of retaining the urn without their most influential player. In this context, don’t even mention demerit points.
Strauss knows he simply has to take a tough line on internal discipline or risk surrendering his authority and making English cricket a laughing stock.
And when he eventually reviews the Board’s investigation into the whole affair, he knows he will have to turn the spotlight on himself, too. We must treat players like adults, he insisted. Here’s the news. Not all adults behave like adults either.
Many have drawn parallels between the Stokes incident and past misdemeanours involving Ricky Ponting and David Warner.
Back in 1999, Ponting ended up with a black eye after a night out in King’s Cross, Sydney, and resolved to address his drink problem and became one of Australia’s great batsmen and captains. Warner, similarly, appears to have taken the pledge after laying hands on Joe Root in a Birmingham bar four years ago – a slap that earned him a two-Test ban from Cricket Australia.
Others trawling through similar incidents involving cricketers might even consider the tragic story of David Hookes, the former Australian Test batsman, who died in 2004 after a verbal altercation outside a St Kilda hotel escalated.
The 48-year-old took a single punch from one of the hotel bouncers, fell backwards on to the road and suffered severe head injuries from which he never recovered, dying in hospital the following day.
Only Stokes knows if alcohol was what fuelled his fury the other morning, but he has openly admitted he is no stranger to its delights or its demons. In an extensive interview in The Times magazine last Saturday, some of the content of which has made more uncomfortable reading with every passing day, he offered this puff for his major sponsor, the energy drink producer Red Bull.
“It’s the full-on for me,” he says. “I drink it during matches for hydration. I always drank it, even as a kid. And it does mix well with Jagermeister.”
Helpfully, the interviewer went on to explain: “Indeed, he’s a legend in that respect, once claiming he lost count after 20 Jagerbombs. When was the last time he had a Jagerbomb night? He purses his lips as he thinks. “Probably after Edgbaston.”
Meaning, one presumes, the night after England’s win over West Indies there last month. Great.
“I’m 26, not 14,” Stokes said in that article.
Neither Stokes nor Strauss can claim this has come out of a clear blue sky. Arrested following a drinking session in Cockermouth in 2011, after which he spent a night in the cells that he described as the worst of his life – until now – and in 2013 he and Kent’s Matt Coles were sent home from the England Lions tour to Australia after returning drunk to the team hotel.
And while Stokes has been warned more than once over his off-field activities by his agent Neil Fairbrother, among others, by all accounts the father of two who is about to marry his fiancée Clare Ratcliffe, is not the only England player to have enjoyed themselves rather too much, and rather too often, for the management’s comfort this summer.
So whatever the final outcome, all of those involved, from the top down, from Strauss to Stokes and all in between need to take a long hard look at the offending and offensive video released yesterday, then at themselves.
If Stokes is found as guilty as the footage makes him appear, the penalties will be severe, the player must seek help to address his underlying issues, and it should go without saying nothing remotely like this incident must ever happen again.
The question Strauss must also address is how it was allowed to happen in the first place.
Fiery: Ben Stokes has long admitted to possessing a short fuse but his latest flashpoint could see him out of the game for some time