England’s Ashes preparations remain in limbo, although it is approaching the near certainty of continuing without Ben Stokes, the linchpin of the middle order batting, the vital fourth seam bowling option and the exceptional fielder.
His ill-advised drinking has stalked his career, a dark force threatening to ruin his good work. He’s a young man, yes, but also a father and a prominent sportsman. Repeated breaking of team trust, with continued late night drinking sessions, have been overlooked as the on-field work that he has produced has been of the highest quality. Yes, he enjoys a drink, but he can also produce stunning cricket when it matters.
A few boozy nights out won’t end your career. The inability to know where to draw the line, however, will. Had Stokes avoided confrontation on that evening in Bristol, he likely would have returned to bed late, woken up early and trained as normal. It wouldn’t have been his first rodeo.
Instead, he became embroiled in that fight. His initial defence was that he and Alex Hales, the England ODI opener and partner in crime on this night out, were defending two homosexual men who were being abused, jumping to their protection, defending their honour with their fists and limp kicks.
It was classic PR spin. Two heroes, defending two hapless individuals from a much-abused minority section of society. If only!
Despite the blanket media coverage of the event, the two under attack men who were being defended so valiantly by Stokes and Hales never materialised. Instead, rumour and conjecture.
Apparently Hales was on the receiving end of some close female attention within the nightclub and of the men they ended up fighting, one was filming the events. Stokes realised that such footage could wreck his friend and colleague’s England career – oh, the irony! – so demanded that the man cease filming. He didn’t, they went outside, Stokes rocked him with heavy blows.
Of course, that footage has never emerged, either, but seems more plausible than our drunken crusaders standing up to homophobic abuse. Why was Hales without trousers and pants in a nightclub and why did someone see fit to film it? The mind boggles. The use of mobile phones has truly gone too far, as has the arrogance of some sportsmen.
In place of rumour, however, we have fact: Stokes was filmed punching, kicking and wrestling like a man possessed in the street on a Monday morning. It’s not a good look.
Of course, he’s not the first, nor will he be the last, young man to be in such a situation. It was a fight outside a nightclub, as brief as it was unpleasant; as stupid as it was cringing. As such, calls for prison sentences and total bans from the England team are wide of the mark. If such offences carried prison sentences, our prisons would be more full than they already find themselves, with queues of drunken amateur martial arts impressionists forming outside the gates.
There must of course be some punishment, though. It’s not time for a slap on the wrist or the turning of a blind eye. His suspension pending investigation is the right move from the ECB. He surely cannot go to Australia, unless he is put in a court room and found not guilty sharpish.
The waiting for the slow cogs of justice to turn is a punishment in itself. His life is currently on hold. He’s humiliated himself and his family. He’s let his team down. He’s let all England supporters down. The Ashes is the most important series going, especially when you’re away from home, and England are travelling without a key player. He’s let everyone down.
The courts will decide and he will have some time away from the England setup. He will never captain his country. He will always be a figure of fun, especially to opposition and opposition fans – the ginger ninja showing off his skills street side.
He’s already served most of his punishment, with the official bits still to come. With status comes responsibility and this incident will haunt him.
Of course, should there be a repeat, then his career is likely done. He needs to take stock of his life from here. The continued late nights have to end. He needs to start behaving like an international sportsman and a father. He needs to take some responsibility for his actions.
He deserves the opportunity to show that he has learnt from this and he should play for England again. The damage has been done and his reputation will never truly recover. The self-destruction has to stop, though.
By Miles Reucroft