Cricket’s morality is left blacker by Stokes decision
England’s pair of miscreants were let off lightly over their involvement in a street brawl which damaged the game’s reputation
Since Ben Stokes and Alex Hales were discovered to have participated in a brawl outside a Bristol nightclub there has been an extensive debate about the extinction of the idea of cricket as some sort of metaphor for life. If the moral idea of the game was not dead and buried before Stokes embarked upon thumping people in the street, with Hales as his minor accomplice, it is now, following the findings of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s independent disciplinary panel on Friday.
Aware, for once, of a bad episode of public relations affecting the sport, the ECB has been careful to make the point repeatedly that the disciplinary panel is independent – in other words, no one should get the idea that in conducting its inquiry and reaching its verdicts on the two players it was susceptible to influence by the ECB itself – given how much the board must have hoped that Stokes, at least, would be able to provide his services for the coming West Indies tour, the World Cup and the Ashes series against Australia next summer.
If we assume the disciplinary panel really is independent – and that is what is says on the tin – then its members have a view of how to treat players who engage in acts of violence that seems remarkably consonant with what one imagines the ECB itself would wish.
By an equally remarkable coincidence, it turns out that the punishment both players faced in terms of bans from playing at international level was covered by the amount of games they had already missed when dropped by England’s selectors, in the furore that followed the incident. Hales was banned for two white-ball matches that he has already missed, with a ban of another two suspended for 12 months: so provided he behaves until next December, he has served his time, and will only have to pay £3,000 of a £7,500 levied upon him. On the second charge Hales faced, about “inappropriate images” in social media that he circulated, he received another suspended sentence of two matches and a £10,000 fine, only £4,500 of which will have to be paid unless he misbehaves before this time next year.
So, if you like, Hales has been promised a good conduct bonus of £10,000 if he keeps his nose clean for 12 months: perhaps, put like that, those who feel such behaviour is not as bad as some make it out to be can begin to see how ridiculous and self-defeating the actions of this disciplinary panel are. He has also got to pay for some period of re-education – the panel calls it “training’, which makes one think first of dogs but then, perhaps, of borstal – about his behaviour in the next three months, or find the suspended elements of the punishment imposed upon him. But leaving aside that claptrap, as the conclusion of the panel says, “he therefore remains eligible for immediate selection”.
It is right, however, that Hales should receive a lesser punishment than Stokes, for anyone who has studied this case – and especially who has studied the video images – will know that, of the two of them, he was the minor offender. Yet in Stokes’s case the disciplinary panel was, again, deeply obliging. He was banned for six matches because of the Bristol incident but, again, he has already missed them; and another two matches (already missed) for the “inappropriate video”. He was fined £30,000, none of it suspended, and doubtless with a view to trying to improve cricket’s pitiful public relations, it was directed that £15,000 of this be paid to “a suitable charity or charities”. Those dealing with the victims or effects of alcohol abuse would seem the most suitable.
We are told the panel “took into account the complex circumstances surrounding these events, including the considerable legal expenses already incurred by both players”. What a shame it is not explained what the complex circumstances were, for to most people drinking to excess and going out into the street to fight, loathsome though it is, is not remotely complex.
The point about costs is designed to explain why the panel did not make a costs order on either player. It chose instead for the ECB, or rather those people who pour their hard-earned money into the ECB’s coffers to watch international cricket, to subsidise the consequences of behaviour that the panel itself found was sufficiently iniquitous to merit large fines and the missing of international matches.
Both Stokes and Hales were charged under ECB directive 3.3, which states: “No participant may conduct themselves [sic] in a manner or do any act or omission at any time which may be prejudicial to the interests of cricket or which may bring the ECB, the game of cricket or any cricketer or group of cricketers into disrepute.” Given what the panel seems to accept went on, Stokes should be thanking God daily that a jury did not take the same view, for he might otherwise be prevented from playing cricket by a power even stronger than the ECB.
It was unfortunate that there seemed to be attempts to prejudice, or at least persuade, the inquiry by various of Stokes’s friends in the media, who emphasised his undeniably healthy contribution to the recent whitewash of Sri Lanka as, apparently, a reason to think well of his moral conduct and influence. To others, including me, what we saw in the video footage of the incident in Bristol in September 2017 was, quite straightforwardly, thuggery by someone who cannot hold his drink.
To say Stokes got off lightly surpasses understatement. If he and Hales have half-decent agents the money for their fines will be whistled up by an endorsement here or a personal appearance there in no time. The ECB can field Stokes in the international sphere next year, and aggressive young men all over England can take comfort from his example to them, that a professional cricketer can go out in public and behave violently, and the game just shrugs its shoulders.
Stokes should have been banned for the next year, despite his acquittal in court; Hales for six months. As it is, the cash register carries on ringing, and the moral tone of cricket has just become considerably blacker.
What we saw in video footage was thuggery by someone who cannot hold his drink
Free to play: Ben Stokes escaped a ban when he appeared at the ECB’s disciplinary panel in London on Friday; CCTV footage (left) of Stokes and Alex Hales outside the Bristol nightclub in September 2017